Keep watching the skies

The new Chico Observatory opens the eyes of all to the wonders of the universe

SEEING STARS Kiwanis-Chico Community Observatory volunteers Anita Berkow (back, perched on ladder) and Kris Koenig (front, who was also instrumental in getting the project going) pose with the high-tech reflector telescope they happily operate for visitors. Berkow has also been involved with the project since its beginnings.

SEEING STARS Kiwanis-Chico Community Observatory volunteers Anita Berkow (back, perched on ladder) and Kris Koenig (front, who was also instrumental in getting the project going) pose with the high-tech reflector telescope they happily operate for visitors. Berkow has also been involved with the project since its beginnings.

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s 9 o’clock on a crisp, clear Friday evening, and we’re gazing at Saturn.

The planet looks pretty much as it does in your average textbook or artist’s rendition, only perhaps a bit less colorful: a bright disc with traces of ruddy banding and the ring tilted down toward the viewer at a 45-degree angle, the Cassini division clearly visible.

There’s something of a bonus tonight, as well—two small moons appear to the lower right of the rings, and to the upper left is what seems to be Titan, clearly brighter and larger than the other two. The whole scene could be a picture. Only it isn’t. We’re gazing at Saturn, and we’re viewing it right now.

Since November of last year, the Kiwanis-Chico Community Observatory has been taking local viewers on enlightening tours of our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe—weather permitting, of course. The recently constructed facility is located near Horseshoe Lake in Upper Bidwell Park, off Wildwood Avenue.

From the road, it looks rather like a house, with a high A-frame roof. But this house has curious red glows emanating from around it, almost as if it is a scene for otherworldly doings straight out of The X-Files. What these premises present is far more entertaining and enlightening than any mere television program, however. Open Thursday through Sunday evenings beginning about 45 minutes after sundown, the observatory and its telescopes are manned mainly by volunteers. One of those volunteers and a chief motivator behind the project is Kris Koenig.

“It was actually a spin-off of my company, Star Safaris,” explains Koenig, a 40-something, stocky man with lightly gray-peppered dark hair. “It was a dream of mine to try to create a place that was free, so that children of all ages and all incomes could have an opportunity to be exposed to science. We have dark skies here in Chico; we have a great environment for an activity like this. So the idea was to get it funded and get it going.”

Also a motivating factor was the sudden availability of a telescope. Through the “Stellar Parties” Koenig and others used to throw “to get people interested in astronomy,” which he also admits were for the purpose of “PR for my company” to sell telescopes, he found out from some visiting Sacramento amateur astronomers about former Chico astronomy instructor Jim Schwartz’ passing.

Koenig attempts to get the gears turning on the late Jim Schwartz’ complicated, homemade refractor telescope: the device has no instruction manual.

Photo by Tom Angel

The visitors told him that they had received Schwartz’ scope through his family. “They said they would love to donate it back to Chico,” says Koenig, “if we had a place to put it. That was the seed that started the observatory—finding a place to put Jim’s telescope.”

Schwartz actually hand built his telescope, and it is a curious looking contraption. I overhear someone likening it to some kind of a ray cannon from Star Wars. “It was made and cast in Jim’s back yard,” Koenig explains. “He ground the two lenses and configured it.” It’s a unique scope, he points out, and does not have a set of plans.

The scope is clearly not fully assembled. “There’s no manual,” Koenig states, with just a trace of amused frustration. “It needs a bit of work to get it back up to snuff.”

The telescope we peer through tonight is an ultra-modern, high-tech piece of work—a wide, barrel-shaped reflector telescope with a handheld keyboard-type remote that will display preset coordinates for finding planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and so on.

I ask Koenig what sparked his interest in astronomy.

He says Apollo 11 was the catalyst. “Ever since I was a kid in Selma, Ala.—my father was stationed in the military there—and I sat on the floor at 3 a.m. and watched a guy walk on the moon,” Koenig explains. “That was it. I just fell in love with astronomy at that point. I loved it as a kid, and it’s now my business, my vocation.”

He moved to Chico with his family when his father became a professor at Chico State University. He left for a time, eventually moving back with his wife. “I moved back here because it was a safe place to raise my family,” he says. “All the reasons everyone lives in Chico. Then we moved away for a while, then came back to start Star Safaris.”

HEADING OUR WAY First observed in 1661, the comet now designated Ikeya-Zhang (at left) should become visible to the naked eye in the early hours of morning over the next several weeks as it swings closer. Its “tail” will develop as it nears the sun and the solar wind pushes its ionized particles away. Ikeya-Zhang is currently visible in the western sky only by telescope.

When asked if it was difficult to convince the city that the observatory was a viable project, Koenig says, “It was one of those ideas where [they reacted], ‘This is too cool to not have.’ The Park Commission was very receptive.” The present site was chosen for two reasons: The ground had already been disturbed when “Horseshoe Lake” was transferred, and it was accessible for kids. “Kids can ride their bikes out here, or their parents can drop them off,” Koenig says.

He points out that the fund-raising was spearheaded by the local Kiwanis Club, and that otherwise competing companies came together to see the project put into place. One individual he sites specifically is Mack Hill.

Koenig explains that Hill was a longtime resident of Chico, who had attended flight training during World War II out at the airport, become a successful realtor and raised his family here. Hill made a sizable donation to the observatory. “He unfortunately passed on,” says Koenig.

Hill’s partners, who wish to remain anonymous, donated $12,000 in his name to add the finishing touches. “We’re getting solar power in here because of that donation. It should almost be the Mack Hill-Jim Schwartz Observatory. Besides the Kiwanis, Mack Hill is the main reason this place is here.”

When asked why the average person should care about astronomy, Koenig is quick to answer.

“There are two things that make astronomy really cool,” he says. “First, and one of the main missions here, is to get kids excited about science.” Koenig points out that unlike simply sitting in a classroom, attempting to absorb dry facts and run textbook experiments, children can experience a much more direct method of science. “They can sit here and actually watch the moons go around Jupiter and try to mathematically calculate the rotation speeds of the moons. That’s a real thing they can do.

YOUTHFUL MOONWATCHERS Buddies Nate Schwartz, 9 (peering through the scope), and Justin Millard, 8 (foreground), get better acquainted with the moon, while Kris Koenig waits ready to help. Note device in Justin’s hand—it automatically steers the telescope to preset celestial locations.

Photo by Tom Angel

“And for the everyday man or woman, it gives them a moment to reflect. Because when we show them a galaxy that’s 35 million light years away, and we say there’s a hundred billion stars in that galaxy, but that’s only one galaxy of a hundred billion galaxies that we assume are in the universe—and, like most things in astronomy, we’re wrong! Every 20 or 30 years we find out that we underestimated ourselves again! But it gives you a moment to think that it’s a vast, vast universe, and we’re just a really small part of it. And maybe what’s bugging you [that day] really isn’t that big a deal.”

Former Chicoan and leading comet discoverer Caroline Shoemaker will be in Chico Sunday, March 17, to receive an award from the Chico Unified School District for education and also one from the observatory for her contributions to astronomy. For more information or to volunteer to operate a telescope, call 879-0307 or check out their Web site at