The Society was founded in 1971 as the Mid-South Astronomical Research Society (MARS) by a handful of enthusiasts who wanted to promote amateur astronomical observation and research. Several of the early members were particularly devoted to doing science level observing, including Clay Sharrod who published one of the most popular how-to-books of the time on scientifically worthy amateur astronomy. For a brief period, the society had access to an observing site north of North Little Rock where it installed a society built 6.5″ refractor but the land lease did not last.
Homeless, the society continued on and was incorporated August 21, 1979.
Heading into 1986, the return of Haley’s comet was a big stimulus for the Society and public interest in astronomy in general. The Society held comet parties all over central Arkansas, from the David D. Terry lock and dam site, east of Little Rock, to Petit Jean Mtn. State Park and points in between. Over a thousand MARS Haley’s comet certificates were handed out. As the certificates came late in the process and were often given to family units, there is no telling how many people saw the comet through MARS instruments.
Feeling empowered by the comet, and finding suitable dark sky observing sites a growing problem, it was decided that the Society should purchase a rural observing site to call home. With twenty or so members and dues income in 1986 of $641.55, this was plainly an ambitious concept. After months of searching, the property that was to become the River Ridge Observatory was located. It was a seven-acre site under moderately dark skies on an east/west ridge a little over half an hour west of Little Rock near Little Italy with a good southern horizon. Adding to its utility, the site had been a modest rural home site that had burned down leaving a concrete stoop, lawn, well and a septic tank.
The land was purchased for $6,500 and the timber sold for $2,000. Dues were raised, The Rockefeller Foundation committed a $1,000 and a match was found from the Atlanta Sasnoff Investment firm, which along with smaller donations from members and a few other local business, was enough to get things started.
Initial development required cleaning the rubble, and importing several well used portable buildings, purchased for price of removal. One was converted into an observatory. The “small observatory” is still in use today. The other provided a meeting area and bathroom. With power run to triangular pads, the later laid with hand mixed concrete, the Society had a functional observing site and soon began sponsoring public events at its new observing site. These were sufficiently successful that the Rockefeller Foundation invested another $2,000 (1988).
Along the way, the Society adopted its current name, which better described its true nature being primarily composed of casual observers dedicated to enjoying the night sky and bring it to the public.
The next project was to construct an observatory to house a 6.5“ f15 refractor that the club had inherited. Unfortunately, after installation, the optics were found to have been damaged in storage. The late Jim Hoskins, who was in the process of building a large observatory near his home in Royal AR, loaned the Society what was to be his “guide scope”, a new 6” f7 apochromatic refractor. Soon after the first private observatory was built by the author, intended to pursue and ill-conceived nova patrol using chemical photography.
In the years immediately following the development of the observatory the Society had an active observing culture. In addition to members observing on site, outings were held on site for school and scout groups featuring member created educational slideshows presentations, there being no powerpoint at the time. The school programs focused on science magnet schools and programs for at-risk youngsters. Two back to back dark weekends were assigned to each institution each year, the second being a weather date. Saturday of the first weekend was the preferred target, with the preceding Friday the first fall back date, then the second weekend in the same way, if needed. Parents would call an answering machine after a designated time on Friday to get the go, no-go weather call. Every group got its outing.
There was always considerable excitement when the school buses started unloading into the rural darkness under the Milky Way. Some of the youngsters who had never been out of the city at night found the bus ride an adventure in itself, even scary. The highlight of these events where the constellation tours given by Michal Berrington, for whom the club’s annual outreach award is named, replete with detailed renditions of associated Greek and Roman mythology.
By 1993 the free if you will remove it clubhouse had been outgrown. So it was back to the Rockefeller Foundation with letters of support from client educational institutions. The current classroom was purchased, and a large deck constructed.
Eventually, the loaned instruments had to be returned. The Society not having suitable replacements, members began installing instruments in the observatories. In 1994 Chris Lasley occupied the small observatory and became a pioneer in CCD astronomy imaging using a pillow style mount built by Steve Block, and a kit built 211 CCD camera for which Chris machined the housing himself.
Over time all-volunteer membership organizations experience sinking spells. The ill-fated Arkansas Aerospace Center came into being in 1995, just as the Society was entering a lull. The temptation was great and the Society moved its meetings to the AAC. The observatory declined along with the observing culture and school and scout outings trailed off as did membership. When the center closed the meetings returned to the observing site but for a time use of the observatory was mostly limited to the monthly club meetings and public schools no longer had the transportation options that once existed.
In July 2002 Chris Lasley was able to take the club onto the internet with its first website. July 19th 2011, Darrell Heath, a biologist turned amateur astronomer and NASA Solar System Ambassador, started a Facebook page raising the club’s public profile further. Not your typical club facebook page either, as it covers not so much club news as astronomy and science news in general. Today it boasts over three thousand followers from far and wide. In November 2013, Darrel started doing TV Night Sky programs for UALR TV and started a companion Blog.
Meanwhile, back at the observatory, Danny Flippo had followed Chris into the small observatory. In 2008, the large observatory was rented to Wade Van Arsdale who installed a CCD imaging system, controlled from a warm room he added. In 2012, the only private building was rebuilt as a metal structure with a powered sliding roof, suitable to house a robotic system. This inspired a whole new level of development. The old clubhouse/storeroom was replaced with a new clubhouse, and with prodigious investments of time and talent, Danny and Chris spearheaded the development of an internet and intranet system complete with onsite weather to support robotic instruments. Operational by the Spring of 2013 the first robotic system on site began gathering data on variable stars, restoring the Society’s original research purpose, while other private robotic observatories pursued astrophotography.
Soon there were three privately operated fully robotic observatories on site, serviced by high-speed internet service, on-site weather data, cloud sensors, and all-sky-camera. Inspired by the success of these instruments, a joint venture was initiated between Arkansas Tech University and the Society, the so-called RRT Project, resulting in a fifth structure built to house an ATU instrument. This project, under the management of Dr. Jeff Roberts of ATU and Stephen Caldwell of CAAS, with prodigious technical support from Danny Flippo, became fully operational in 2016 and used predominantly for data imaging of variable stars, asteroids tracking and has even documented an exoplanet. Between the RRT and the private observatory as of late 2017, nearly a hundred thousand variable star observations have been logged.
Over the last few years, the club has been slowly expanding its onsite outreach again. While onsite events have not been restored to the level of the past, the Society’s outreach has never been more vibrant, though most of it takes place off campus. However, monthly meetings are open to the public as are occasional special events and an annual scout merit badge event. It is hoped that the RRT project will restore the observatory’s public education role by providing remote scope time and data for secondary school programs as well as ATU students.
In 2017, the Society under the extraordinary leadership of Nathan James, who was not even a listed member of the club when elected to the presidency, took on the Great American Eclipse destined to dominated public astronomy that year as Haley’s comet had decades earlier. Club members, most particularly Carl Freyaldenhoven, the Society’s eclipse guru, gave numerous programs to various groups about the eclipse and how to observe it. The popularity of these events is hinted at by the sale of several thousand pairs of eclipse glasses.
Today, while the membership remains dominantly that of sky watchers and amateurs of varying degrees of sophistication, from newbie sky watchers to several professional astronomers and educators.
There has never been more potential for the Society. It will be interesting to see what transpires as the future continues to slide into the past at the River Ridge Observatory.