The Mt. Lion Observatory — built just last year at Fort Roberdeau in Altoona — will be a prime place to look to the stars this summer. The new facility features an enclosed structure housing a high-powered telescope, as well as outdoor, leveled observation pads for those to bring and set up their own equipment.
Thanks to its location in rural central Pennsylvania, there’s very little light pollution and a great view of the night sky, according to Glenn Nelson, executive director at Fort Roberdeau. But the observatory’s construction was precipitated thanks to the Altoona Area School District’s Neil Armstrong Planetarium and its director, Jim Krug.
Nelson explained that Krug was once a volunteer at Fort Roberdeau and “he always noticed the big sky. As he got more into astronomy, and became an earth and space teacher, always had that vision from his internship days at Fort Roberdeau of having telescopes out here.”
Though private individuals are invited to the observatory to use the secondary telescope pier or leveled pads to mount their own scopes, only one of the approved users can operate the fixed Celestron CGEM 9.25-inch telescope.
Krug and other experts have an exciting season of astronomy in story for the observatory.
“You get the type of programming you would get in a major metropolitan area, but without the crowds,” Nelson said.
Weather permitting, events will be held on the second Friday of every month. Those wishing to visit the observatory are encouraged to call Fort Roberdeau at (814) 946-0048 to check for availability and to get information on upcoming public events.
Last year was a wet one for Pennsylvania and Nelson said it was challenging for the Mt. Lion Observatory. He said they hope to start strong this year and build momentum. If their first program last year was any indication, that shouldn’t be insurmountable: nearly 500 people showed up.
The Mt. Lion Observatory will be celebrating its first anniversary on June 14 with a free screening of Star Wars: Rogue One, hosted by Fort Roberdeau and Neil Armstrong Planetarium. After the outdoor movie, guests are invited to the telescope platforms or head inside to the observatory for night sky viewing.
On Aug. 9, visitors are invited to “The Simple Joys of Dobsonian Astronomy.” This event — meant for astronomy novices or lifelong enthusiasts — will allow guests to explore variations of the “light bucket” Dobsonian-style telescopes known for their ruggedness and light-gathering power. Hosting will be Rick Imler, planetarium director of Hollidaysburg Area High School and Fred Marshack, retired professor of earth and planetary sciences at Santa Barbara City College.
A summer of Revolution history
There’s plenty else happening at Fort Roberdeau this spring and summer. On May 4 and 5 will be Ranger Skills Weekend, with demonstrations of skills employed by rangers to successfully patrol the frontier. Nelson said as the fort’s defenders came back after winters at home they needed to brush up on their frontier skills. The Cumberland County Militia will demonstrate a number of skills necessary in the 18th-century wilderness and the event is a big draw for scout troops, youth groups and families.
The “Star Spangled Fourth” event is also popular, Nelson said, and will feature more 18th-century period demonstrations such as cooking, tin punching, blacksmithing and history on lead mining. The latter of these was the main motivation for the original 1778 fort: to provide lead for revolutionary forces.
“It’s a great tale of the Pennsylvania frontier during the Revolution,” Nelson said.
Revolutionary War Days will be held on July 20 and 21, complete with an encampment and reenactment from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.
The Fort’s grounds are open from 8 a.m. to sunset year round. The Fort and Acorn Gift shop are open from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Find the fort and observatory by taking exit 41 off of Interstate 99 near Altoona. The fort is tucked away on 230 acres across a mountain to the east of Interstate 99, so while you won’t be able to see it from the highway there will be signage.