The Rapidian Home

Local observatory sees steady turnout, interest in 2020 with in-person, online astronomy events

Amid this year’s fluctuating restrictions on social activities in response to the pandemic, Lowell's Veen Observatory was able to stay open to the public for much of the summer and fall months.
Veen Observatory visitors in line for a portable telescope viewing, during a previous year.

Veen Observatory visitors in line for a portable telescope viewing, during a previous year. /Kevin Jung

Another hobby embraced by many West Michiganders throughout 2020: amateur astronomy.

Amid this year’s fluctuating restrictions on social activities in response to COVID-19, the Veen Observatory in Lowell was able to stay open to the public for much of the summer and fall months. Turnout and interest in it remained high, its operators said, with safety measures intact.

Located 20 miles east of Grand Rapids, the James C. Veen Observatory is owned and operated by the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association (GRAAA). Its facility houses three mounted telescopes and several portable instruments for night sky viewing, as well as space for astronomy education events.

The observatory’s tools are available to the public during Public Observing Nights on select Saturdays if skies are clear, from spring through fall. This year, the first such event happened July 25, coinciding with the Grand Rapids region’s loosened pandemic-related restrictions for several months.

During the Public Nights at the Veen Observatory this summer, we had an explosion of people who were looking for a safe activity for the family,” said Jack Daleske, Planetarium Manager at Grand Rapids Public Museum’s (GRPM) Chaffee Planetarium.

GRPM partners with GRAAA in presenting the Public Nights, and provides ongoing financial and clerical support.

“It also didn’t hurt that we had a particularly good view of the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn,” Daleske added.

The GRAAA’s Vice President, Dave DeBruyn, seconds Daleske’s observations. DeBruyn said the Public Nights averaged between 100 and 200 visitors each night the observatory was open, which ended up being around seven events. This turnout was comparable to prior years, despite physical distancing measures limiting the space around the observatory to 50 people at a time and creating wait times.

I think people really, really had cabin fever by late July,” said DeBruyn, who’s been part of the GRAAA since the mid-1960s, serving in roles from President to Board Member. “There were so many things that were cancelled. The outdoor Concerts in the Park, the symphony series at Cannonsburg. You could go on and on, of all the things people like to do in the summer that weren’t happening.”

“So here’s an opportunity,” he continued, “with the proper safety precautions, to do something unique.”


GRAAA’s adjustments

With statewide shutdowns of theaters, concert venues, and other entertainment businesses since March, gazing at night sky objects in distanced telescope spaces, on a wide outdoor lawn, offered residents an outlet to escape home-based routines. It also enabled them another safe way to stay socially connected.

In order to ensure public safety as visitors interacted with telescope operators and each other, the GRAAA established other protocols in addition to the 50-person limit around the observatory space.

For the indoor telescope spaces, the number of visitors was limited to five or six at a time. Groups waiting to enter were separated by six feet.

Rules were in place for visitors' eyes not to touch the telescopes’ eye pieces – something DeBruyn mentions was enacted before more studies emerged confirming airborne transmission as the principal mode of contracting the virus.

We had little cups so that you didn’t touch the eye piece,” said DeBruyn. “Little rubber eye protectors.”

The capacity limits at various points of entry for the observatory caused long lines in their parking lot for a couple of its Public Nights. This didn’t appear to lessen turnout or enthusiasm, according to DeBruyn.

“Over and over again, we keep getting really, really accommodating visitors,” he said. “They wait in the long lines patiently. Very little complaining.”

In addition to the GRAAA’s Public Nights, which concluded Oct. 24, the organization also made accommodations for its public speaker and membership events. These events typically took place at Grand Rapids’ Schuler Books, until the pandemic.

Since Sept., the GRAAA has hosted a few free speaker events through Zoom, in partnership with the GRPM. Among topics were NASA’s asteroid sample return mission and how to pick the right telescope for Christmas.

Turnout for these type of events have been around what they were when hosted in-person – about 40 to 50 people – and growing, DeBruyn said. A difference is that they’re now drawing in members who’ve moved away, and online followers who aren’t members.

We’re drawing people in from various other locations from the country,” said DeBruyn. “One of our members that moved away to New Mexico Zoomed-in for the last meeting. It gives you a chance to reconnect with people.”

We’ve had to just improvise so much, which would suggest that maybe our members wold not think they're getting their proper services, but that does not appear to be the case,” he added. “In fact, it’s sort of the opposite. The enthusiasm is growing.”


GRAAA concludes year’s events, partners with GRPM

Public Observing Nights over this year, the GRAAA is wrapping up its 2020 events with a virtual lecture on Thursday.

The free lecture features Dr. Jacob Bourjaily, Associate Professor of Physics at Penn State University, GRAAA member, and former staff at GRPM’s Chafee Planetarium. It’s co-hosted by the GRPM.

Bourjaily’s lecture will explore theoretical physics and is the GRAAA and GRPM’s annual James M. Marron Memorial event. It’ll take place through Zoom from 7-9pm, with limited capacity.

GRPM’s Chaffee Planetarium, which has also hosted a variety of free Zoom-based events this year, has another planned for Dec. 10. Part of its “Virtual Backyard Stargazing” meetups, the event will feature an interactive presentation about the Andromeda galaxy and a brief Q&A session.

The GRPM’s planetarium, which reopened in Oct. for in-person events, is now closed again through Dec. 8, in response to the latest pandemic-related emergency order issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“We at the GRPM look forward to continuing to engage visitors in whatever capacity we’re able to during this pandemic time,” GRPM’s Daleske said. “As a planetarian, I’m looking forward to once again welcoming visitors to the Chaffee Planetarium – even in a limited capacity.”

The GRAAA, which has no Public Observing Nights in the colder months, is presently unaffected by the MDHHS’ latest order. It's planning another public Zoom event on Jan. 21 featuring Dr. Brent Bos, with its fuller 2021 schedule being developed in the meantime.

“I’m always happy to see people pick up a new hobby and astronomy is very rewarding, although it can have a steep learning curve for beginners,” Daleske said. “An organization like GRAAA is a great resource for learning how to get started.”

Forthcoming virtual events hosted by the GRAAA will be listed on its website’s Upcoming Events page. Virtual events hosted by the GRPM’s Chaffee Planetarium will continue to be listed on its website’s Calendar List.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.