Gretna Observatory

Only local observatory (always good to see cities don't give a shit about science):

The city of Gretna has an out-of-this-world attraction, but few know about it.

The Gretna Observatory is the largest public observatory in the greater New Orleans area. Located at No. 1 Copernicus Lane (formerly part of Huey P. Long Avenue) off of Gretna Boulevard, behind Gretna Middle School, the observatory is open to the general public with free admission and ample parking every Monday and Wednesday evenings from dusk until about 8 p.m., except for major holidays and weather permitting.

The observatory offers viewing through a pier-mounted, computer-controlled, 16-inch Meade telescope and is housed under a traditional 16-foot-diameter aluminum dome. The other night when I visited, we were shown views of the crescent moon, and Jupiter and four of its moons. The craters on the moon looked so large and clear that it was surprising. Several guests arrived during the evening and seemed delighted to learn so much from our informative operators.

The telescope's image of the astronomical objects is about 300 to 400 times their normal size. The image was very clear and was also visible on the wall monitor to anyone in the room.

John Cerniglia and Ron Marcella are the two observatory operators who work weekly at something they both really enjoy. Their enthusiasm is very evident as they relate information about the night skies, the seasonal changes to watch for at any given time of year and also about when, what and where you can see different celestial objects.

Cerniglia usually works on Monday nights, and Marcella is usually there on Wednesday. Both of the operators met me that night because they were both so excited about what they do there and wanted to share some of that knowledge.

"This is the only game in town," Marcella said. "Once the observatory in Kenner closed, we have the only public observatory in this whole area. We're very proud of our ability to show the public what's out there on any given night."

The idea about starting an observatory in Gretna was introduced by City Councilman Vincent Cox III. "It took about three years in the planning stage to get the idea off the ground," Cox said. "We received some grants and lots of donations. Even the contractors worked on it for free labor."

Cox said his favorite time of year for observing the sky is the winter. He enjoys the stars, planets and constellations that are visible with the telescope at that time of year. Cox is hoping that the observatory can draw the interest of schools in the area.

"Perhaps some of the schools may even be interested in starting some type of observatory club and have the students come out on a regular basis. We are also hoping the public will come out and have a look. They would probably be surprised at how good the viewing is and how clear the telescope can pick up images."

Marcella said, "We even have a special sun filter so that we can observe the sun spots or an eclipse of the sun. Either the winter or summer skies are the best for viewing. Now is really a great time of year to come out and take a look. Just remember to come on a clear night. If the sky is cloudy, then nothing will be visible."

Cerniglia said they would love for people to come out to the observatory and bring their own personal telescopes. "You know lots of time people buy telescopes either for themselves or for their children and have no idea how to use them. They can bring them here, we'll help them set it up, show them how to use it, and also where to look for certain objects according to the time of year it is.

"The Gretna Police Department patrols this area on a regular basis, and so it's really a safe and friendly place to come."

There are about eight pads outside the observatory used for extra telescope setups. Sometimes they have groups of people come out and have a "star party."

"The group will come out and set up several telescopes and bring coolers and just hang out together. We all talk about astronomy and just have fun," Cerniglia said. "I've been here since the observatory opened. I've been interested in astronomy since I was a young boy."

So, come out and bring your friends and family. It's a unique experience to view the night sky through such a powerful telescope. Visitors may call ahead at 504.227.7624 to check current sky status and inquire what objects are available for observing. If your school or group is interested in coming to the observatory at any time other than the regular Monday or Wednesday night, e-mail Mike Sandras at astrox@ix.netcom.com. Sandras will be happy to work with you to schedule a viewing time that meets your needs.

It's a great privilege to have such a powerful observatory in our own backyard.

Official site.

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