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October 22, 2014

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Las Vegas Astronomical Society has sights set on an observatory at Mount Potosi

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Justin M. Bowen

A view of the Las Vegas Strip from the top of Tropicana just before the lights went off to celebrate Earth Hour on Saturday, March 26, 2011.

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Rob Lambert, left, and Jim Gianoulakis of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society hope that an observatory will attract new fans to stargazing

At dusk, when Las Vegas flips on its klieg lights, Rob Lambert and Jim Gianoulakis go looking for darkness.

These two graying stargazers want to establish an observatory in one of the most light-polluted places on the planet. For them, it’s all about making the best out of a bad situation: If the lights of Las Vegas unnaturally brighten the nighttime sky, well, just point your telescope in the other direction.

“If you build a facility in a remote area with pristine night skies, you’re probably going to be missing the people to come and utilize it,” said Gianoulakis, the 150-member Las Vegas Astronomical Society’s president, who recently inherited the post from Lambert. “We want to make this a reality so kids can reach out to the stars at a young age.”

The pair want to encourage a new generation to peer at the Orion Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy with their own eyes. For years, without an observatory to call their own, their society sponsored its star parties in places such as Death Valley and Utah’s Great Basin.

Thanks to the donation of a 14-inch telescope and mount — worth about $65,000 — from a benefactor in North Carolina, as well as a deal with the local Boy Scouts, the society will soon establish its own observatory complex atop Mount Potosi, the site of a Scout camp about 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas. Two protective domes also were donated by a company in Minnesota.

Man-made lights have been the bane of astronomers for decades. But for most amateur astronomical societies, it’s not how far your telescope can see but how many new fans you can turn on to the hobby.

“Take the Griffith Observatory — high over the hills of Hollywood,” said Scott Kardel, director of the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association, an advocacy group dedicated to combating light pollution. “The lights of L.A. have always made it hard to do astronomy, but more people have looked through the sights of those telescopes than any other facility in the world.”

And that fact gives Lambert and Gianoulakis hope. Las Vegas presents a big challenge — the city’s lights burn brighter than those in Tucson, Phoenix and even Los Angeles. But the proposed observatory site is protected by two mountaintops, which block out some of the Strip’s lights.

Most of their searching, they acknowledge, will face away from the city. They hope the facility on the 1,100-acre Kimball Scout Reservation will draw Boy Scouts and also be used to send night sky shots to teachers in Las Vegas schools.

On a recent day at dusk, Lambert and Gianoulakis toured the area where their telescopes will soon find a home. They scrambled up a hill, past a landscape of scattered juniper trees and pinion pines, guided by Norm Fuqua, the ranger for the Scout camp.

A visitor asked Fuqua whether the night skies here would be dark enough to see interesting things.

“Heavens, yes,” he said.

As the Griffith Observatory proves, ambient light doesn’t block everything.

Kardel said amateur astronomers in New York City use telescopes, “and not necessarily just to look inside each other’s apartments.”

“Even in Manhattan, you can see the brighter objects, like Jupiter and the moon in great detail. For the right people, it can take your breath away,” he said.

Gianoulakis got his first taste of astronomy at the Griffith Observatory when he was 8. He saw the rings of Saturn and he was hooked.

“I still say, ‘Wow,’ every time I see it,” he said.

Now the information technology manager has a 12-inch telescope in his Las Vegas backyard. And despite the lights, he takes long-exposure shots of far-away galaxies and stars.

Lambert came to stargazing as an adult, when he attended one of the society’s night viewing parties. A member mistook him for a group regular and asked him to show some other tourists the star cluster M-13.

“I said, ‘Um, what’s that?’” he said.

He now knows that M-13, as he recites, is “a globular cluster in the Hercules constellation that’s 25,000 light-years from Earth, comprised of 750,000 suns.”

Today, Lambert is a part-time astronomy professor at a local college.

“It’s a kick for us to hear people look into the telescope and say, ‘No way!’” Lambert said.

That just makes his night.

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