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NMSU's Apache Point Observatory hosts open house for community

When you are going to an astronomical observatory to look up at the night sky, don't forget to bring a pie.

Man talking with group of people
Attendees of the open house take a guided tour of one of the telescopes at Apache Point Observatory. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

That is what Mark Klaene, site operations manager for New Mexico State University's Apache Point Observatory wished he had done prior to the open house his facility hosted recently.

"The pie is for the observing night staff, but the real reason for the pie is to appease the weather gods so that you will have clear weather," he said with a smile. "I wish I had my magic wand so I can always arrange for clear skies when this happens."

Unfortunately, Klaene forgot the pie and attendees at the open house had hit-and-miss chances to view stellar objects in the night sky from the Astrophysical Research Corporation 3.5-meter telescope. But with a little patience, and some silent prayers, the clouds occasionally parted, giving for many of the attendees, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view the stars through such a powerful telescope.

The observatory invited the area community and school children - along with their parents - to come out March 22 to the site and learn about what Apache Point is all about.

Along with looking through the 3.5-meter telescope, participants also toured the Sloan Digital Sky Survey 2.5-meter telescope and the lab where the staff spends tedious hours manually plugging plates - one fiber optic cable at a time - to observe spectra. They also got to go through the visitor's center at the National Solar Observatory and viewed a presentation on the highlights of Apache Point.

Faculty and staff coordinated the open house, largely led by the direction of Gretchen Van Doren, program manager at the observatory.

Klaene said the goal of the open house was three-fold: educate the local community about the observatory that is off the beaten path in the Sacramento Mountains, near Sunspot; show the community the important role they play in helping the staff perform science; and to show off the accomplishments of the observatory and its staff.

"I am very proud of the staff who work here," he said. "This open house was an opportunity for them to show off what they do here. Nearly all of my staff volunteered their time to be at the open house. Of those who did not show up, one was sick and the other two live outside the local area and could not make it. Some of our volunteers brought their spouses and girlfriends and boyfriends to help out."

Perhaps the biggest aspect of Apache Point Observatory people can be proud of is that all the data collected by the telescopes is available to the public online at http://www.apo.nmsu.edu/.

Klaene said attendees have traveled from as far away as Kansas to attend the open houses.

"A lot of work goes into putting together these open houses, but it is all worth it. There are many people who tell us they enjoy the experience," he said.

In the future, Klaene is sure to remember one important before opening the doors to the public.

"From now on, when it comes to open house nights, I will be buying pies to see if I can help appease the weather gods to get clearer nights!"