Events Draw Hundreds of Visitors, Including City of Glendale Elected Officials
Rare cosmic events dramatically heralded the grand opening of a new astronomy observatory on February 15 at the GCC North campus. The event drew a large crowd and marked the beginning of GCC’s 2013 AZ SciTech Festival activities.
Earlier that day, people the world over were stunned by images of a 10-ton meteor streaking through the sky over Russia at 10 to 12 miles per second. A thunderous explosion followed as the meteor hit the Earth’s lower atmosphere, unleashing a burst of energy that scientists estimated as the equivalent of 300,000 tons of TNT. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it was the largest recorded meteor since the one that struck Siberia in 1908.
Then, on the very same day, a small asteroid passed close to Earth, avoiding a collision by a mere 17,200 miles – closer to Earth than many communications satellites that beam news to our television sets.
After the dramatic debut of GCC’s Festival, campus events continued through Friday, February 22, when an estimated 700 or 800 people – many of them children and their families – descended on the GCC campus to participate in scientific activities and demonstrations.
NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson made a special appearance, answered questions from visitors who were curious about the day-to-day realities of being in space, gave away souvenirs and signed autographs.
Glendale Councilmember Sam Chavira and Vice Mayor Yvonne Knaack Attend Events
Several members of the City of Glendale government, including City Council member Sam Chavira and Vice Mayor Yvonne Knaack, attended events on the GCC campus. GCC student Haitham Abbasi served as an ambassador for the City contingent. “It was an honor to guide the city council and vice mayor during the festival,” he said.
The week prior, a crowd estimated at 400-plus earthlings had streamed onto the GCC North campus for the grand opening of the college’s new observatory. Students, extended families and other heavenly observers listened to brief remarks, adjusted their eyes to the gathering darkness, and waited for their opportunity to experience the telescopes personally. Remarkable close-up views of Jupiter, Orion, Pleiades and the Moon rewarded their patience. Astronomy students and alums were on hand at each telescope, providing information about what they were seeing, including impromptu primers on constellations.
Celestial Views Captivate Children
Viewing the sky through state-of-the-art technology was an opportunity for parents to expand their children’s worlds. “My children were enthralled with views of the Moon, Pleiades and Jupiter, and they especially loved learning about comets; the next event is already on our calendars,” said Heather Huston, mother of an 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
Approximately 200 of the celestial tourists had their “Passports to Science” stamped by representatives of the City of Glendale at the observatory’s grand opening. Many participated in demonstrations and activities in an adjacent classroom. Children and adults alike grinned with excitement at experiencing the fun of creating their own small comets by mixing the raw ingredients under the supervision of an experienced astronomy professor.
North Phoenix Mountain Preserve Shelters Observatory
Nestled in a desert landscape near the North Phoenix Mountain Preserve, and bracketed by Ludden Mountain on the north and Hedgpeth Hills on the south, the semi-circular observatory pad looks unassuming. Visitors parking in the main lot might even fail to notice it. But an entire universe opens up at night when the powerful telescopes take their place atop specially-built concrete piers.
“We have one of the most precious resources you can have in astronomy – which is dark skies,” said astronomy professor Keith Watt.
Eight viewing stations on the pad are telescope-ready; the telescopes themselves, housed protectively in custom-fitted cases, are transported to the pad, mounted to the piers and adjusted for the desired viewing angle. Built-in wiring within the piers allows the collection of data that can be downloaded and studied, an important part of the learning experience.
What’s under the pad is as important as what’s in the sky overhead. Each of the eight observation piers stand atop a massive and precisely constructed foundation designed to isolate vibrations. This helps the telescopes remain stable, even when people walk on the pad. Above grade, the pad itself is topped with special material designed to re-radiate atmospheric heat and reduce potential distortion.
Alien Planets Beckon Sky-watchers
While the average sky-viewing novice might wonder, “Where’s the big telescope,” the American Astrological Society meeting in 2012 asserted that a bank of small telescopes is actually optimal for finding exoplanets, otherwise known as “alien” planets. (“Exo” means “outside.”)
In any case, equipment is only the first step. “What you really need is good technique, which is what we’re trying to teach,” said Watt. He also noted that eight small telescopes allow for more student access than a single massive telescope would provide.
New Curriculum on the Horizon
The Astronomy Department is testing a new curriculum and has high hopes for GCC astronomy students. Watt says he would love to be the first community college in the nation to observe exoplanets. Watt maintains Americans are natural-born scientists. “We’re always exploring the world, learning about things and bringing back knowledge to improve the world,” he said.
It’s a fascinating journey. Caroline Smith, curator of meteorites (stony fragments that survive and fall to earth as the meteor plunges through the atmosphere) at London’s Natural History Museum, said recently in The Wall Street Journal, “Each meteorite is a time capsule and space probe recording the history of our solar system from 4.5 billion years ago.”
So although GCC Astronomy students may have their heads in the sky, they may be pondering how they can make a difference here on earth. With scores of people now scanning for meteorites in snowy Russian fields, there’s no better time to ask that question.
“The response to our AZ SciTech Fest activities was overwhelmingly positive,” said Watt. “Everything went extremely well and it was all due to the efforts of a large team that performed beautifully.”