You’ve probably noticed that funny-looking, domed little building on a hill at Greenfield and Guadalupe Roads. You — or your child — may have even been there.
It’s the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory, and it turns 5 years old on Friday.
“In that time, we’ve had about 45,000 people come through on Friday and Saturday nights,” says Claude Haynes of the East Valley Astronomy Club, the volunteer group that staffs and manages the facility.
Another 5,000 or so schoolchildren have visited during the daytime to safely observe the sun through a solar filter.
“We’ve been surprised at the diversity of people. Some are winter visitors, some are people who see it when they’re driving by during the day and come back at night. It varies from young children to grandparents who have never, in all their lives, looked through a telescope,” says Haynes.
Made of a ring of concrete block topped with a rotating aluminum dome coated in white aircraft enamel, the GRCO houses a 16-inch Meade LX200R Advanced Ritchey-Chretien telescope. Beneath the ground, tons of concrete hold the telescope in place, independent of the observatory’s floor.
It was built with private donations by Gilbert Rotary Club as a gift to the town marking Rotary International’s 100th anniversary.
“If you had gone to any Rotary Club in the entire world and said, ‘Let’s build an observatory for our centennial!’ not many people would have gone for that,” says Haynes.
But a Rotarian, educator and astronomy buff named Win Pendleton (who has since moved out of state), got the idea off the ground.
“He convinced everyone involved that we would be able to excite children and improve science education in the East Valley by having a facility that families could go to,” says Haynes.
The observatory is open for public viewing from dusk to 10 p.m. every Friday and Saturday, weather permitting. Additional telescopes are set up outside the building on the second Friday of each month, when there’s also an astronomy-related talk at 7:30 p.m. in the adjacent Southeast Regional Library. EVAC members are on hand to explain what’s happening in the sky and help visitors with their own telescopes, which they’re free to bring.
“We do answer an awful lot of questions, and we’ll probably tell you more than you ever wanted to know,” says Haynes of the second Friday “Skywatch” parties. “Even if you have your own telescope, we love for you to look through this one and say, ‘This is something else!’ It’s just fun to look through a really large instrument and see the level of clarity and brightness, to see the heavens as they really are.”
Several “citizen science” projects are planned for coming months, including one on Nov. 4, when EVAC members will use the telescope to track an asteroid passing in front of a star. The data will be submitted to a scientific group to help determine the asteroid’s size, shape, speed and other attributes.
By the time the GRCO turns 10, Haynes hopes it will have stirred even more interest in science, especially for the East Valley’s “junior observers,” who can pick up a checklist at the observatory and cross off the moon, star nebula, planets and other objects spied on each visit.
For teenagers and adults, there’s another need the GRCO fulfills: “It is a really great geek date night. It’s free, it’s dark — what else do you want?” jokes Haynes.
The observatory operates on donations; visitors are asked to give what they can. Popcorn is also sold to help with maintenance costs. The GRCO is at the north end of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, 2757 E. Guadalupe Road, Gilbert. For information, call (480) 503-6234 or visit www.riparianinstitute.com