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Couple raising awareness of campaign to build $11M planetarium in rural Yamhill County

An Oregon couple, famous for their giant blue telescope that was stolen and recovered in 2021, are pushing forward with a project to reshape local science education.

MCMINNVILLE, Ore. — Nearly 200 guests will pack the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum (EASM) in McMinnville Friday to celebrate progress by the Carlton Observatory.

The sold-out event is one of many efforts to boost awareness for the upcoming campaign to fund construction of an $11 million planetarium and science center next door.

For Janet Zuelke and her husband Forrest Babcock, the passion project is years in the making.

"It's amazing how excited people are," Babcock said.

Babcock has a love of telescopes. He and Zuelke's collection is displayed at the EASM, with many telescopes that he has built or refurbished.

One is a brass telescope found in a crawlspace at Linfield College, dating back to 1888. 

Another is the famous "Big Blue," a $15,000 custom telescope that was stolen in March 2021, but later recovered intact. 

RELATED: Massive stolen telescope back with Oregon family; deputies seek thief

After the ordeal, the couple secured a sponsorship from First Federal Bank in Yamhill County and space at the EASM. The exhibit now serves as a community gateway to their bigger project: The Carlton Observatory at Evergreen.

"It's daunting... [but] the momentum is there," Zuelke said. 

The observatory will officially launch its roughly $11 million dollar campaign this September, but is working to drum up donor interest early.

RELATED: Telescope couple plans $11 million observatory in rural Yamhill County

Zuelke said people and businesses can purchase sponsored stars, planets and nebulas that will light up on the future planetarium's ceiling.

For her, the effort to expand space education in rural Yamhill County is inspiring.

"This is an underserved area, so this resource will mean a lot," Zuelke said. "The first time somebody actually sees the rings of Saturn or the craters on the moon with such detail, they feel something... it's a visceral experience." 

The goal is to fundraise for about a year and a half starting in September and to complete the new Carlton Observatory science center within about three years.

In the meantime, Zuelke and Babcock are seeking volunteers to help run the EASM exhibit. Opportunities are open to high school students and adults.

RELATED: Engineers reassemble telescope more than a century old at Evergreen Aviation Space Museum

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