Photographs by Chris Dorst
At dusk, participants in a Stars and S'mores astronomy program at the Mountain Institute on Spruce Knob Mountain point upward as clouds part and stars begin to appear. The dome-topped Backridge Observatory is seen at left.
By Rick Steelhammer
CHERRY GROVE, W.Va. -- Not long after Morgantown native Joe Morris moved to a rural section of Maryland's Eastern Shore, development in the fast-growing area began interfering with his hobby.
Morris, an orthopedic surgeon and an amateur astronomer since his high school days in Monongalia County, had built an astronomy station outside his Easton, Md., area home, where he spent his spare time improving his astrophotography skills.
"But eventually, light pollution got to be a problem," Morris said.
Telescope in tow, he began scouting out areas with darker night skies where he could make better observations and photos.
After reading in an online astronomy user group discussion that West Virginia's Spruce Knob was a prime locale from which to view the night skies, Morris decided to give it a try.
"West Virginia's lack of light pollution in the Potomac Highlands makes possible what is most likely the darkest sky site east of the Mississippi," he said.
He began setting up his astronomy and photography gear at the observation area atop Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia at 4,863 feet. But despite the stunning views available from the summit, the car-accessible mountaintop had its drawbacks.
"There can be an amazing amount of traffic there at 2 a.m.," he said. "When you're up there doing hour-long exposures, headlights can ruin your shots."
On trips up and down the mountain, Morris noticed signs marking the turnoff for the Mountain Institute, the nonprofit education and conservation organization based 4,200 feet up Spruce Knob. After he spotted a card with a Web address for the institute at a grocery in Seneca Rocks, he returned home, read the institute's mission statement online and then called its director.
"I asked if he thought astronomy would blend in with the institute's educational program, and he thought it was a good idea," Morris said.
At that time, Morris had a 20-inch telescope that could be broken down and carried in a cargo trailer, then re-assembled on Mountain Institute land. "We started out with a loosely organized program in which any group that was spending time at the institute could come over for an astronomy lesson when I was there, and I would have the rest of the night for photography."
Later, Morris and the Mountain Institute began a series of one-week astronomy camps, in which a dozen or so students would stay at the Institute, make observations on Morris's equipment, and spend a night operating a radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank.
"Eventually, setting up, taking down, and hauling around the old telescope started to become a big effort," Morris said, so he approached Mountain Institute officials with a proposal to build an on-site observatory.
He credits Mountain Institute board member Jim Underwood of Franklin with helping him build, both administratively and with hammer and nails, what would become the Backridge Observatory. The fiberglass-shrouded building topped with a 15-foot dome houses a self-built 16-inch Newtonian telescope.
"The mount for the telescope is pretty fancy automated thing," Morris said. So is the observatory's motorized, rotating dome, and a computer-connected shutter that provides viewing access for the scope.
"We got it finished in 2006, just in time to close up for the season, and started using it the following year," he said.
The recent arrival of fiber-optic cable at the Mountain Institute should soon allow Morris to be able to make observations on the Spruce Knob telescope from his Maryland home.
Morris visits the observatory once monthly to make observations and give astronomy workshops to visiting Mountain Institute groups. He has taught several Mountain Institute staffers how to operate the telescope when he is not present.
Eventually, he would like to see the telescope used by West Virginia science teachers who make research proposals and operate the observatory themselves.
"There are a lot of things amateur astronomers can do to help out professional research astronomers," said Morris, a WVU graduate who has donated Backridge Observatory to the Mountain Institute.
"I wanted to give something back to West Virginia, and I think the observatory will be put to good use in the years to come," he said.
The Mountain Institute has become a popular locale for amateur astronomers in the mid-Atlantic region, due to its abundance of dark night skies and the presence of such amenities as food service, showers and dormitory-style lodging.
The Institute is one of four observation sites used by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. On Aug. 26-30, the club will host its annual Almost Heaven Star Party at the Institute, drawing amateur astronomers from across the region to Spruce Knob.
This year, the Institute began hosting a series of Stars and S'mores astronomy nights at Backridge Observatory and elsewhere on Institute land. This year's final Stars and S'mores event is scheduled for Aug. 6, from 8 to 11 p.m. The program, which includes observations from the 16-inch Newtonian telescope, is free, although camping, dorm lodging and meals are available for $15, $25 and $25 per day per person.
"The Stars and S'mores program has gone over really well," said Dave Martin, program officer at the Mountain Institute. "People can either be inside, using the big telescope, or outside, watching the stars in the night sky with their naked eyes and making s'mores around a campfire. And if the weather turns lousy, we're set up to look for salamanders."
Participants are urged to call the Institute at 304-567-2632 or send email to lgutier...@mountain.org to make their attendance plans known.