Sometime in late February, a massive comet called Pan-STARRS will pass within 30 million miles of the earth. In astronomical terms, that's close. It won't collide with us. But it will be close enough to make the evening news.

With heightened attention skyward, people all over the world will flock to observatories for a closer look. And planetariums will rush to add the comet to their sky shows.

We'll probably do the same thing here in Cincinnati. But unlike many cities our size, where there is a mix of mega-planetariums run by museums and observatories operated by universities, Greater Cincinnatians will have to turn to a gaggle of stargazing outlets that can best be described as quirky. They're good, mind you. Sometimes they're even exceptional. But it's an odd situation, because "quirky" is not a word we often apply to ourselves in Cincinnati.

Basically, there are four players in the local stargazing game. One is old. By modern astronomy standards, in fact, "antiquated" might be a better description. Another is tiny, a minature so small it couldn't accommodate the average Thanksgiving dinner. One is located atop a high school. And the other is so far out of the way that you should be sure your GPS is charged before you leave home.

The point is while Greater Cincinnati has no shortage of sports arenas, convention space or waterfront dining spots, we don't have a single one of those gleaming, center-of-the-city stargazing facilities that draws tens of thousands of people to its doors.

Fortunately, the folks who run these local oddball venues are driven by a crusading spirit that the first astronauts would have appreciated. They are, in every sense of the word, proselytizers for the heavens.

Gracious Patriarch

The patriarch of the bunch is the Cincinnati Observatory Center, the gracious, Victorian-era facility whose presence spawned the name of one of Hyde Park's main thoroughfares. It roots date back to 1845, when the original Cincinnati Observatory opened in Mount Adams.

In Mount Lookout since 1873, it is home to the oldest professional telescope in the U.S. Visiting is a memorable undertaking, a little like stepping into one of those lavish BBC historical dramas.

But predictably, the facility has limitations. Most public programs employ the original 1843 Merz and Mahler telescope. It's adequate, but hardly capable of providing a cutting edge astronomical experience. Fortunately, the observatory's role changed about 15 years ago, when it morphed from being a research facility into an educational one.

Dean Regas, the observatory's outreach astronomer and, as one of the hosts of PBS's Star Gazers, is well aware of the observatory's limitations. But, says the only honest-to-goodness astronomy luminary in the area, different places have different goals.

"There is still a sense of wonderment that people experience when they put their eye up to the telescope and see the rings of Saturn," says Regas.

Unlike most observatories, this is a place where people can move and control the dome and the telescope. But for the beginner, the person just setting out to understand a little more about astronomy, it is a breathtaking experience.

"I remember how it was for me when I got started," says Regas, who admits to never having taken an astronomy course. "My degree is in history and secondary ed."

He was working as an educator at the Avon Woods Nature Center and Preserve in Paddock Hills when he was transferred to the Trailside Nature Center in Burnet Woods.

"They told me, "¢We've got this planetarium and you'll be giving shows,'" Regas recalls. "And then they said that my first show was a week later."

After a single training session, he made his debut.

"I turned down the lights and put the stars up there and I fell in love," he says.

That's what all of these organizations want their visitors to feel: amazement, astonishment, delight and enough curiosity to want to learn more.


That planetarium where Regas got his start is the least likely of the local contenders. The Wolff Planetarium, as it's called, seats 20 and has a dome that is only 12 feet high. Hidden away at the end of a dead-end street in Clifton's Burnet Woods, it's been in operation on and off since 1950. It is, according to the Cincinnati Park Board, the oldest planetarium west of the Allegheny Mountains.

At the heart of the diminutive place is a Spitz model A-1 star projector. This antique is one of only 40 that were made. But it still has the chops to put on a great show, says Michael George, who runs the place.

"This is one of the lowest-tech planetariums in the universe," he says. "But it still gives a beautiful show. People still "ooh and aah" when the stars come out. If you're looking for Betelgeuse or Orion, we know where they are. They haven't gone anywhere."

George has to do a bit of juggling when school or scout groups visit. Even more difficult are the summer camp programs. Half see the museum, while the other half are in the planetarium. But it works. And besides, he says, the intimacy of the place can have its advantages.

"Soon after we reopened in 2007, I got a call from a gentleman who rented the planetarium so that he could propose to his girlfriend," George says. "We cleared the chairs and set up a table with candlelight. They had a catered dinner and, after we did a starshow just for them, he laid it on her. She said "¢yes.' How could she say anything else?"

40,000 Students A Year

At the other end of the spectrum is the Drake Planetarium, located on the top floor of Norwood High School. Over the decades since its 1982 founding, director Pamela Bowers has aggressively expanded the planetarium's reach.

Today, the 70-seat facility serves more than 40,000 students every year from 50 school systems. In other parts of the building, which was built by the Norwood Schools, but operated by a separate foundation, they offer Lego Labs, home-school programs and a variety of outdoor nature labs in coordination with Norwood's Lindner Park.

With the recent launch of public programming, Bowers expects to more than double attendance in the near future.

"We're not just a planetarium," says Bowers, who has run Drake since the day it opened. "We're about citizen science. I regard myself as a solar systems ambassador. And I have to tell you, astronomy and science are alive and well in Cincinnati."

Sharing the Passion

Nowhere is that more evident than with the Cincinnati Astronomical Society. Founded in 1911, it is, in the truest sense, an organization of enthusiasts.

With no staff and more than 400 members, the group maintains a four-acre plot of land in Cleves that is home to four good-sized traditional telescopes and one radio telescope.

Meanwhile, out in Adams County, the group has a 17-acre, members-only site devoted to dark-sky viewing. Even in Cleves, it seems, light pollution is an issue.

They offer classes, evening programs and all manner of opportunity to sit around and ask questions. But mostly this is a group that is all about sharing ideas and experiences with kindred spirits, says president Terry Endres who, like the Cincinnati Observatory's Regas, says that Saturn holds a special fascination for visitors.

"You know, our primary goal is to get someone here and looking into a telescope," says Endres, who also teaches an astronomy course at Cincinnati State. "Like a lot of other groups, we are concerned about the graying of amateur astronomy. It seems that there are not a lot of younger folks getting involved."

There are lots of reasons for it, he says, everything from the Internet to the hyped-up imagery that fills video games.

"So we've started a young skywatchers group. We've had a really good turnout so far. We give them pizza, talk about what we're going to see, and then finally we look into a telescope. The reactions are amazing. We're talking about kids from second grade on up.

"But when they look through that telescope and see the real things "” the stars and the moon "” they're hooked."