PASCO -- Space still is the final frontier, but its entry point is moving a lot closer to Pasco.
Soon, students from across the state will come here to peer at faraway galaxies, casual astronomy fans will crane their necks inside a space dome and two area colleges will train the astronauts of tomorrow.
Columbia Basin College and Heritage University are launching a new degree program in astronomy this fall. It will incorporate a refurbished telescope that once stood atop Rattlesnake Mountain and a brand-new planetarium that still is in the planning stage.
The new degree -- a bachelor's of science in combined science with specialization in astronomy -- will be awarded by Heritage University, which keeps a small, but growing, presence on the Pasco CBC campus.
Teaching duties for this and most other bachelor's degrees offered are split between the two institutions. Students enroll in CBC for the first two years and then transfer to Heritage without leaving the campus, said Paul Dowdy, regional director for Heritage's Tri-Cities site.
The astronomy degree is the first of three new combined-science degrees to roll out through the next three years, he said. Next year, a degree in nuclear technology will be added, followed by one in sustainable resources the year after.
Each degree requires that students take a lot of chemistry courses. That's partially because each field involves a lot of chemistry, but also because the degrees are meant to open a lot of different doors in science and engineering, Dowdy said.
And the training will be hands-on, said Mike Durst, director of the Moore Observatory on the CBC campus who oversees development of the three new programs.
The reason why this program will be more hands-on than most -- certainly at the undergraduate level -- is sitting in a metal shop on campus.
The telescope once at the observatory on Rattlesnake Mountain was donated to the Alliance for Advancement of Science Through Astronomy -- or AASTA -- in 2005. Three years later, the Department of Energy told the group it had to vacate the mountaintop.
The telescope was disassembled, moved to CBC and restored by machine-tech students. It's finished now -- bearings cleaned, rust removed and a new coat of blue paint applied.
All it needs is a new home, the site for which will soon be chosen.
AASTA is working with a dozen colleges and universities to create the new observatory. The consortium includes CBC, Heritage and Washington State University, but also farther-away schools such as Spokane Valley Community College and the University of Washington, Durst said.
The location of the new observatory will be announced within a month and likely will be within 30 miles of the Tri-Cities, he said.
Work on the pad for the heavy telescope will start before the end of spring, the building around it should be finished by late fall, and Durst hopes to lead students into the observatory by the first of the year.
The largest telescope in the state will then greatly benefit the students in the new degree program. It dwarfs the telescope inside the Moore Observatory, Durst said.
The Moore's telescope is 16 inches in diameter, about 5 feet long and weighs 200 pounds.
The telescope from Rattlesnake Mountain is 31 inches in diameter, 15 feet long and weighs 3 tons.
It's only a 10th of the size of the biggest telescopes in the world, "but you can see things with it that you could only dream of when I was young," Durst said.
The Rattlesnake telescope was developed for research purposes, not amateur stargazing. It has mounts for professional imaging devices that open the universe to human inspection.
"You could rival the images that spacecraft took of Jupiter's clouds," Durst said. "You can see galaxies out to 5 billion light-years."
A light-year is the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year. That's a long way -- for example, light reflected off the moon gets to us in just over one second.
The Hubble space telescope, which has sent images of previously unseen galaxies to Earth, sees 30 billion light-years out, Durst said.
What this means for the Tri-Cities is that students can do actual space research here, not just learn the principles.
"You could take it to where you provide something new to the science community," Durst said. "That's exciting. Usually you can't do that until you're a graduate student."
That means students can leave the Pasco campus with great standing to get into prestigious master's programs, or get a job with their bachelor's degrees.
The National Weather Service, NASA and the burgeoning private space industry would be natural fits for the students, Dowdy said.
But because the program provides a solid chemistry background and involves the use of sophisticated measuring equipment connected to the telescope, students also could go into environmental monitoring, for example, Durst said.
And yes, they could become astronauts.
In the old days, space travelers were former pilots. Today, they are scientists with diverse backgrounds -- chemistry and astronomy, to name one combination.
The new observatory also will be open to the public on select days, as the Moore Observatory is now. Durst opens it to the public every Friday night.
Similar plans are in store for a planetarium on the CBC campus. The location is set for it -- the old N building on campus will be gutted and rebuilt. An approximate timeline is in place.
"I'd like to have it by next year," Durst said.
The money just isn't there yet. The 36-foot dome with digital images floating across the ceiling will cost $1 million. Half of that likely will come from a loan provided by CBC to AASTA, Durst said. The other half will have to be raised from private donations, which isn't easy right now.
But Durst has no doubt it will get done. And then he will provide the perfect day for astronomy scholars.
"We'll take a (virtual) trip to Saturn in the planetarium, walk over to the observatory to practice how to use a telescope, and finally look at spectrum analysis of the planet's cloud cover through the (Rattlesnake) telescope." he said. "I'm just really excited about this."
* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; email@example.com