Dave Hostetter, curator at the Lafayette Science Museum planetarium, first proposed an observatory more than three decades ago, shortly after the astronomer took the job in 1980.
He’s finally getting his wish.
“We’ve had several proposals, but this one is actually going to happen,” Hostetter said last week, showing off some of the roughly $60,000 in new high-end telescopes, cameras and other equipment planned for the observatory.
Hostetter and his team have begun piecing together the components, and he expects it to be partially operational by early next year.
“This is well beyond what you are going to find in the department store,” he said. “It’s putting us kind of on the cutting edge of the technology being used in museums and education.”
The equipment is destined for two fiberglass observatory domes that already sit atop the downtown museum — built there when the old Heymann Department Store on Jefferson Street was transformed into the Lafayette Science Museum’s new home in 2002.
One of the domes will be used for solar viewing, with one telescope set up for observing surface features, such as sun spots, and another hydrogen alpha telescope for viewing solar prominences, which often appear as flames on the sun’s surface.
The other dome will be equipped with telescopes for viewing the night sky.
Most viewers won’t actually enter the observatory dome but rather control the telescopes through commands from a computer and see a digital image captured by cameras.
Hostetter said museum staff plan to use the facility to develop local astronomy programs and to enhance the viewing experience for eclipses, comets and other celestial events.
Once the kinks are worked out, he hopes to allow local astronomers, school groups and science clubs access to the observatory through an online interface.
“I can see where this is going to be an extremely valuable tool for the community,” said Lafayette Science Museum Administrator Kevin Krantz.
He also said live video feeds from the observatory will be a welcome addition to special astronomy viewing sections the museum hosts.
A viewing party near the museum at Parc Sans Souci for the recent supermoon lunar eclipse attracted a crowd of about 175 people, and one of the observatory domes was set up with provisional telescope equipment for the viewing party, with images of the eclipse streaming over the Internet in a feed picked up by NASA TV, the space agency’s online video service.
“I do anticipate that this is going to put us on the map,” Krantz said. “It is really quality content, super high-resolution stuff.”
Hostetter said the museum will continue hosting its popular sidewalk viewing sessions even after the new observatory is in place.
“It’s still not the same as having the photons hit you in the eye,” he said.
The planned observatory comes after the museum completed a $500,000 upgrade of its planetarium three years ago, replacing 40-year-old technology with new digital equipment.
“Our attendance has nearly doubled since we did that,” Hostetter said.
The museum has shifted its focus more intensely to science and local programming in recent years.
The city-owned facility rebranded itself as the Lafayette Science Museum in 2009 — it was formerly called the Lafayette Natural History Museum — and has phased out traveling exhibitions in favor of science exhibits more closely tied to south Louisiana, drawing heavily on research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
For more information about the museum, planetary programs and local astronomy, visit lafayettesciencemuseum.org.