Observatory part of plans for Emmet County-owned Dark Sky Park

Sep 4, 2014

A crowd of stargazers enjoys the view at dusk during a recent waning moon at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.
Credit Aaron Selbig

At the very northern tip of the Lower Peninsula is Michigan’s only “dark sky park,” a place almost free of light pollution – reserved just for the enjoyment of the stargazing public.

Mary Stewart Adams is program director at the park and the voice of “Night Sky,” which airs Fridays on IPR. Adams said right now, the dark sky park – located within the Headlands Wilderness Park near Mackinac City – is basically a wilderness. Besides a wide-open area where you can lay on a blanket and watch the stars, there really aren’t any facilities here. But that is about to change.

“It started with this idea that … we need to have a restroom facility at the Headlands,” said Adams. “Then, we were given by donation … the dome for an observatory.”

The plans continued to grow. The final design includes an indoor classroom space, a full, commercial kitchen and a grassy slope on the north end of the building, facing the water.

The price tag is $7 million, a bill that will be paid by Emmet County.

Charlie MacInnis is an Emmet County commissioner and also serves on IPR’s Community Advisory Board. When the county commission voted in April to approve the money, MacInnis was the only commissioner to vote “no.”

“What it comes down to is if the public were given the opportunity to vote on this, I am quite confident they would vote against it by a wide margin,” said MacInnis.

The role of county government, said MacInnis, is to provide “core services” like roads, schools and public safety. He says he just doesn’t see the dark sky park rising to that level and he’s concerned the public money for the new building might end up turning voters off to future funding for things like ambulance service or local schools.

“The sky is dark now (and) it won’t get any darker once the $7 million is invested,” said MacInnis.

Jerry Dobeck said government should have a role in advancing science – and an observatory at the Headlands would do just that. Dobeck is a professor at Northwestern Michigan College. He runs the J.H. Rogers Observatory there and was a founding member of the International Dark Sky Association.

Astronomy is “hot” right now, says Dobeck. He says enrollment for his astronomy courses at NMC has grown 12 percent just in the last year.

“It’s becoming very popular and it’s not necessarily to have budding new astronomers in the world,” said Dobeck. “It’s showing them how science works and what science really is.”

Construction is set to begin on the new facility at the Headlands dark sky park next year.