By Dawn M. Aerts
Iron County Today
CEDAR CITY–When the sun sets at the Ashcroft Observatory, you’re likely to find Cameron Pace behind the telescope. As an avid astronomer and educator, Pace has always been fascinated with nebulae, lunar phases and viewing distant parts of the galaxy.
The Observatory was named for physics and engineering professor Theron A. Ashcroft, who taught at SUSC (now SUU) for 34 years (1939 and 1972) and who helped developed an astronomy program at the college.
As an assistant professor in the Physical Science Department at SUU, it is Pace who often turns down the lights and adjusts the 14’ optical telescope. While he and a handful of teaching assistants (TA) lead courses in science, they offer their expertise to those who simply come to gaze at the stars.
“I love being here, viewing the constellations, lunar events, and seeing the faces light up when I open the dome,” Pace said. He has managed the hilltop observatory near the SUU Farm since 2015, but the project began in 1977 with formal dedication in 1980. “We know it was a much darker town then – billboards and street lights are still the worst enemy for dark sky observation.”
To preserve those dark skies, many neighborhoods have limited streetlights, so “we’re grateful for that,” said Pace of the site.
One might say that the ‘stars were in alignment’ in the 1970s, as resident professors, builders, engineers, business professionals and a community came together to construct a high-tech site in a rather unlikely place.
“It was construction management and engineering students from Southern Utah State College (SUSC) that provided the know-how or labor, and all of it was done with support from the town.”
According to Pace, the Observatory is a novel story of what one community can accomplish.
“I would say this was a pretty rare partnership,” said Pace of SUSC, which received a donated telescope, and then a five-acre parcel of land offered by businessman Arthur Armburst. Pace said that road construction was completed by the Cedar City Corporation with architectural work donated by local astronomer Raymond Gardner.
“The Observatory was meant for the public to enjoy – from the get-go.”
Pace points out that the Observatory came about like the cooperative venture at the college known as Old Main (1897).
“I can say that what is unique about this observatory was the grass roots effort by the National Home Builders Association, the fundraisers for materials, and the hundreds of volunteers and students who made this a reality.”
While observatories are generally ranked on elevation, clear-sky ratings, the impact of light pollution and the size or capabilities of the telescope, it was the public focus at the Cedar City-based observatory that proved unique. On most Monday evenings, visitors or scheduled school groups can explore the dark sky that is typically the domain of professional astronomers: it’s then that star-gazers can look to the heavens.
Pace, who said his own passion for astronomy came about as a youngster on the remote landscapes of Utah, believes that astronomy is a ‘gateway’ science for kids. His curiosity in astronomy began with collecting worms for a local lodge.
“I remember the really dark nights on the ranch in Bicknell, watching the sky light up — which I know stayed with me all those years.”
As an educator, Pace describes the Ashcroft observatory as dedicated to community access and learning opportunities.
His courses focus on lab work, discussion and practical application which is not based on theory alone. Though dark sky viewing will depend on the season, what phase the moon may be in, and of course, what planets and constellations are visible, it is a unique experience.
“In general, people like to jump on the telescope, and that’s accessible to anyone who is curious about terrestrial or celestial events, and that’s anyone from school or scouting groups…to families.”
The recent lunar eclipse drew about a hundred curious observers to the observatory.
“I think the best thing for me is to see the senior citizen, or the seven-year-old who immediately connects to this observatory. We offer them a little of the equipment and the know-how,” says Pace, “But this is a ‘gateway science’ for young people. And astronomy can lead them to study or to pursue a career in geology, chemistry or physics.”
The original Observatory, first dedicated in 1980, housed a donated 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope. At the grand opening, visitors could see the detail of planetary surfaces, faint nebulas, galaxies, and more. The observatory recently received a new 14-inch computerized telescope that allows many more objects to be viewed per night, and many difficult-to-find objects can now be observed.
The upgrade was made possible due to the generous donations of the estate of Dr. Edward J. Joganic as well as the McYoder Charitable Fund. During the school year, Monday nights are usually open to the public. In summer, the viewing schedule expands to Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays.
“It’s always best to check out the Facebook page (Ashcroft Observatory) for special events, days or times,” said Pace, “There’s always a sense of wonder here.”
For more information, see Ashcroft Observatory, (SUU) or call, 435-586-1920.
Caption: Cameron Pace, Director of the Ashcroft Observatory and an assistant professor in the Physical Science Department at SUU, is part of collaborative work with the Great Basin National Park Foundation and partnering universities: University of Nevada (Reno); Western Nevada College and Concordia University. (Photo by J. Aerts)