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Details for proposed Pikes Peak Observatory come into focus

December 11, 2017 Updated: December 12, 2017 at 3:29 pm
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Caption +
Artists rendering of the observatory design concept for the summit of Pikes Peak.

Local astronomy and education enthusiasts are waiting to hear back from the U.S. Forest Service on a proposal to build an observatory atop Pikes Peak - with the largest and most powerful telescope in Colorado - and fulfill a decadeslong dream for researchers.

A proposal for the Pikes Peak Observatory, which might cost up to $3 million, was submitted to the Forest Service in September, said Robert Sallee, board chairman for the National Space Science and Technology Institute, a local group behind the work.

The proposal outlines the vision for the observatory, which has been in the works since 1997.

The institute expects to hear back from the Forest Service by the end of January, Sallee told the Colorado Springs City Council on Monday. The response is expected to list governmental agencies that must next examine the proposal and a price for those reviews.

The observatory's progress seems all but guaranteed from this point on, said Dimitri Klebe, president of the institute and founder of Pikes Peak Observatory, which evolved into the institute.

"It's hard for me to see any show stoppers," Klebe said.

The project has been shelved and faced many obstacles over the years.

But now that the proposal is submitted, "it's been fairly smooth in the sense that there's a much clearer path in terms of getting the observatory built," he said.

Once the Forest Service responds, the institute staff can ramp up its fundraising and seek sponsors, Sallee said.

"We need a champion. Somebody that values STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and wants to participate," Salle said.

High-profile sponsors would boost the project's recognition and lend credibility to the work, he said.

With the new Pikes Peak Summit House aiming for groundbreaking next summer and completion in 2020, the observatory could be built and operating by summer 2021, Sallee said.

The Army's High Altitude Research Laboratory is expected to move into a new building near the summit house site, freeing land for the observatory.

Once the old lab is demolished, the observatory can be built there, Sallee said.

That site will provide the most open views for the telescope because the western overlook is shielded from particles that blow from the summit, he said.

It also minimizes the environmental impact by recycling already disturbed land and "maintaining the fragile permafrost during construction."

Such an approach is particularly important on highly desirable and protected real estate such as the summit, Sallee said. And it will be considered by the Forest Service and others that review the proposal.

"They've got to be careful of how many things they approve up there," he said. "There's just not that much space."

The telescope will be 1 meter long - 3.2 feet - and is expected to cost $650,000. The dome protecting it will cost about $300,000, Sallee said.

And construction is estimated to cost about $834,000.

The observatory also will have a mobile station allowing for remote control of the telescope, Sallee said. Instruments will allow for orbital and atmospheric analysis, among other things.

Because the summit sees about 500,000 visitors a year, the observatory's reach could hit record numbers, Klebe said.

"It's an opportunity, really, to introduce a great more people to the sciences that we're going to be doing there," he said. "Environmental studies, climate studies and, of course, astronomy.

"In one fell swoop, the Pikes Peak Observatory" might have the highest visitation of any observatory in the world. "Certainly the ones in the United States."

Councilmen Dave Geislinger and Don Knight voiced their support, which was echoed by Council President Richard Skorman.

"This is one of the key, premier projects for our region," Skorman said. "Not only for people to come visit, but for people who live here."

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