An out of this world experience

Students from Upper Lake Middle School watch a presentation at Friends of Taylor Observatory planetarium, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022 in Kelseyville.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022


Humans have always been restless creatures who hold an innate drive to explore everything from Earth’s diverse landscapes to the planets in our solar system. And what better place to survey the night sky than at Taylor Observatory and Norton Planetarium in Lake County?

Housed in the same location, Taylor Observatory is located just outside of town, past Kelseyville High School and up the road from Kelseyville Elementary School. As visitors approach the facility, hills frame the observatory’s dome that can’t be missed as it’s silhouetted in the night sky.

A $5 donation gives visitors access to both the observatory and planetarium.

Although viewings from the large scope at Taylor Observatory are temporarily on hold, while the observatory waits for a new telescope to arrive, there’s still plenty to see. For those anxious to start stargazing, there’s another way to observe space. Weather permitting, visitors can view celestial sights through an array of smaller telescopes outside the observatory.

Before guests step up to the smaller telescopes, experts give a short astronomy lesson in a 36-seat classroom where the facilitator shares up-to-the minute space-goings-on. Next, guests mosey to the Norton Planetarium which is just out the door from the classroom and the observatory. Once inside the planetarium, guests take a seat and recline. The lights are then lowered and a star projector shines on the spacious ceiling of the 20 foot high dome.

Taylor Observatory was the brainchild of then-Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Lake County Robert Taylor in the 1970s, who helped fund the construction for the observatory. Then in 1985, the planetarium was built on land owned by the elementary school in Kelseyville.

The planetary is named after Evelyn Norton, who taught astronomy and operated the facility until she retired in 2004. Later, fundraising by Kelseyville Rotary Club, Ukiah Astronomical Society and the Lake County Amateur Astronomer Club helped with renovation costs for much-needed updates.

Taylor Observatory is owned by the Lake County Office of Education and programs offered to the public are facilitated by Friends of Taylor Observatory. The organization aims to enhance astronomy-related Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education for Lake County’s K-12 students.

“When you look at the three dimensions of science learning, I believe that the Taylor Observatory helps build connections across disciplines and explore and engage with technical/engineering practices,” said Lake County Superintendent of Schools Brock Falkenberg.

Passionate about science

Many Friends of Taylor Observatory board members have a background in science or astronomy, which helps with program planning. All board members volunteer their time.

William Haddon, Ph.D., was board member president from 2011 to 2022. His work helped ensure first-rate STEM resources for Lake County students. He also oversaw installation of the Nieman Star Deck and the purchase on and 18-inch Teeter Dobsonian telescope, which was custom-made, to view Deep Sky Objects.

Eduardo Alatorre became involved at the observatory in 2011 when he won a telescope through the Friends of Taylor Observatory’s Future Astronomer program. He has since joined the board and became vice president of communications for Friends of Taylor Observatory.

He has also lectured at the Sonoma County Astronomical Society and Ukiah Latitude Observatory along with working at the Lake County Office of Education as an observatory assistant in 2013.

Alatorre spent most of his life in Kelseyville and spent a few years in Mexico where he sharpened his skills learning to read and write in Spanish. Currently, he’s studying geology at UC Davis.

“Growing up, my father would encourage my sister and me to read as much as possible. He would take us to the Lakeport Library and encourage us to check out as many books as possible,” he said.

Now, he directs the Friends of Taylor Observatory Spanish language program. He said he would love to see more events in Spanish in the future because they are important for the community.

“I remember going to a museum with my parents and having to translate exhibits or a few words of what the tour guide said. I could tell my parents felt awkward whenever I stopped translating because I was focused on something I found interesting,“ he said. ”I believe that providing a space for parents to bring their children while also understanding what is going on will result in a better experience for everyone.”

Creating better future

In 2018, former county Supervisor Jim Steele launched the Dark Skies Initiative, which works to protect the night sky from light pollution for future generations, as an official policy in Lake County. Since then, Calpine, a geothermal company, has been making improvements to the lighting at their facility to comply with the county-wide policy.