Exelon’s Hydropower Reaches New Heights with Construction of State-of-the-Art Observatory

On a cloudy, stormy autumn evening,100 people showed up to a hydropower pumped storage facility to gaze at the stars. Though some may find it difficult to imagine just how hydropower and astronomy intersect, Exelon quickly realized the connection after the great turnout for its first stargazing event at the Muddy Run Recreational Park, a 700-acre park that surrounds Exelon’s 880-megawatt Pumped Storage Facility.

Exelon held the 2015 stargazing event after a request from a community member to take advantage of the site’s dark sky, a rarity in the Mid-Atlantic region. That evening, the area was under a tornado watch, but 100 community members and astronomy enthusiasts attended the event anyway, excited to hear from the expert presenters.

“Management saw that turnout and realized there was a real desire and passion in the area for this kind of event,” says Exelon Business Services Co.’s Assistant General Counsel H. Alfred Ryan. They quickly decided to hold the event annually. In the meantime, Exelon purchased telescopes and constructed a structure to house the equipment. Then the company decided to dream bigger.

In May 2017, Exelon began constructing the Muddy Run Observatory next to its visitor’s center using a vacant area that used to function as a helipad. Exelon recruited the help of land planners and architects, as well as the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, one of the oldest astronomy clubs in the country, which helped determine the best design of the structure and determine the needed equipment. The project also involved building an amphitheater to provide a place for speakers.

The entire project was completed by August 2017, in time for a once-in-a-century solar eclipse. The observatory includes two state-of-the-art telescopes, cameras, computers and other equipment housed in two 14-foot motorized domes. The telescopes and domes are synchronized to track objects across the sky throughout the day or night. Images from one of the telescopes can be projected in real time to a screen in the amphitheater, allowing presenters to better explain night sky objects.

Today, the observatory opens to the public for stargazing every month from March to December, drawing hundreds of people on a cloudy evening and many more when the skies are clear. Each free event includes presentations by speakers who are local amateur astronomers, practicing astronomers and guest lecturers. Special events are held throughout the year, such as the annual Messier Marathon in March, the annual Perseid Meteor Shower in August, lunar and solar eclipses, winter solstice celebrations, planetary transits of the sun, and other unusual celestial occurrences. Since it opened in 2017, more than 6,000 people have visited the observatory.

The Rittenhouse Astronomical Society and two additional local astronomy groups have pitched in to help, providing presentations and volunteers for events. Exelon uses the amphitheater for free movie nights, where community members can watch family-oriented movies with hot chocolate and popcorn. Outside organizations can rent out the amphitheater for non-astronomical events such as live music.

Future plans include classes geared toward grade-school students on nature, energy production, and humans’ place in nature and the cosmos. It also plans on providing space for supervised research for advanced students, as well as classes on astrophotography, spectroscopy, and solar studies.

“Children are our future, and once they have a spark, they’ll take it with them the rest of their life,” says Larry Hubble with the Harford County Astronomical Society. “And one of these days, they’ll be the scientists.”

The Muddy Run Observatory is an above-and-beyond component to the recreational obligations of Exelon’s power facility. It’s part of the Muddy Run Recreational Park, which also includes a stocked 100-acre recreational lake, camping, hiking, boating, nature trails, playgrounds, a softball and baseball diamond, and one of the largest disc and soccer golf arrays in Pennsylvania.

The park also includes a visitor’s center located next to the new observatory. The center provides information and interactive displays of Exelon Generation’s Conowingo Dam and the Muddy Run Pumped Storage generating station on the Susquehanna River. It includes exhibits about the production of electrical energy using mechanical, wind turbine, and solar interactive displays.

The observatory takes Exelon’s commitment to giving back to its community to the next level, providing enthusiasts a place to learn about and view components of outer space often unseen in the bright lights of the busy East Coast.

Exelon’s efforts were honored by the National Hydropower Association, which awarded it with a 2019 Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters award in the category of Recreational, Environmental, and Historical Enhancement.