Dusk descends over the quiet fields of Donovan Park, the sky sliding lavender into indigo as the sun disappears. Small knots of people walk towards the squat silo-shaped building that sits near the trees, tucked away from the routines of the city. The air is humid but clean, voices float like fireflies.
Couples on dates, armchair astronomers, and families with small children have all been drawn here by a common curiosity. They pause as they enter the modest edifice of Northmoor Observatory, glancing at the educational displays before climbing the brief stairs into the open dome. Tonight they are looking up, seeking a connection with all that lies beyond our fragile atmosphere.
Volunteers from the Peoria Astronomical Society eagerly explain the history of the antique nine-inch refractor telescope and steadily dispense facts about the evening’s featured cosmic attractions: deep lunar craters, Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot and four bright moons, and the swirling brilliance of the Andromeda Galaxy. Each visitor waits their turn to ascend the scaffolding and gaze through the eyepiece, freely asking questions or contributing their own bits of knowledge to the collective experience. Dark nebulae, pulsars, and galactic bulges saturate the room with the force of their implied energy even from millions of light years away.
The full moon is so luminous it mimics the sun, obscuring the stars accustomed to their place in the summer skies above Peoria.
Mechanical gears hum and grind as the dome rotates, revealing a fresh patch of the universe. There’s hushed anticipation as the guides locate the coordinates of the next target and manually move the telescope. Its glossy red mass obliges, swinging slowly into position, and the exploration begins again.
*Dedicated members of the Peoria Astronomical Society host free public viewings every Saturday night May through October, weather permitting. PAS also maintains a 24-inch Newtonian reflector telescope and a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at the Decker-Grebner-Van Zandt Observatory at Jubilee College State Park.
Words by Beth Weimer
Photography by Beth Weimer and Steven Hinrichsen