Snow King Mountain sets the stage for new summit-top observatory and planetarium
The top of Snow King Mountain Resort in Jackson will soon be home to the state’s second-largest telescope. In an effort to help both the public and professionals connect more with the night sky, the resort is currently building a planetarium and an observatory that will house a state-of-the-art telescope with a meter-wide mirror.
The $5 million project also includes a 35-seat planetarium theater, an auditorium and classroom space, and a small gift shop. The summit-top sky-centric space will open to the public in the late spring or early summer of 2024, depending on the severity of the winter conditions on the mountain and the speed of construction.
When set up, a telescope with a meter-wide mirror is taller than a standing person and costs an average of $575,000. The Plane Wave telescope will be second in size only to the University of Wyoming’s telescope at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory, which has a 2.3 meter-wide mirror and is located on the summit of Jelm Mountain about 25 miles outside of Laramie.
Samuel Singer is the Executive Director of the educational nonprofit Wyoming Stargazing and helped design the observatory along with Farmer Payne Architects and Jakub Galczynski. He said the summit-top development is one of a kind due to its location.
“It's the only telescope on the top of a ski resort in North America as far as I can tell. So that's a first – definitely the only observatory and planetarium on a ski resort accessible to the public in North America,” he said.
Singer said the new attraction is geared towards educational outreach and will appeal to both the star-curious general public and scientists alike.
“It's going to be both a public outreach facility and a research facility – the telescope is capable of conducting serious professional astronomical research and folks who visit the observatory will also get to look through the telescope,” he said.
In addition to the one-meter telescope, the Spitz-designed planetarium will offer 180 degree projections for films specifically designed to be viewed on its eight-meter domed screen. While Gillette, Casper, and Laramie all have planetariums, Snow King’s project will be the first planetarium in the western half of the state.
The space will also serve as a venue that can be rented out for conferences, weddings, family reunions and private lectures and will be located next to a new mountain-top restaurant that is also under construction.
Singer first dreamed up the concept of the project shortly after moving to Jackson to attend the graduate program at Teton Science Schools in 2005. He said the idea came to him while on a trail run outside of the school’s campus in Kelly.
“I came up onto this ridgeline and I was looking to the south and saw Snow King Mountain Resort. And I thought ‘Man, it would be so cool to have an observatory and a planetarium on the summit of that mountain’,” he said.
After years of teaching astronomy programs and completing a doctorate degree in Science Education from the University of Wyoming, Singer founded Wyoming Stargazing and continued to scheme about ways to make his Snow King dream a reality.
Eventually, Singer was approached by Snow King owner Max Chapman while he was teaching a solar astronomy program at the local farmer’s market. The two put their heads together, and the observatory and planetarium project got incorporated into Snow King’s Master Plan for ongoing expansion.
While some of the resort’s efforts to grow have been met with push-back throughout the years, Singer said the star-focused project has been notably uncontentious.
“There are lots of people who didn't like the expansion of the mountain, didn't like the zipline, didn't like the ropes course. But I think I saw one comment on Facebook that was negative towards the observatory and they were just arguing there were too many cloudy days in Wyoming to build an observatory here – that was it,” he said.
Seven years later, Singer is finally seeing his dream become a reality. He said he is excited about the ways in which the project will help others find passion in the process of learning and access what has become one of the biggest joys in his own life.
“For me, it doesn't matter what my day has been like – when I go out stargazing and it gets dark and I'm out there talking about the night sky, everything else drops away. It doesn't matter if it was the worst day ever, I am just happy being out there teaching people about the night sky and looking up,” he said.