On a cloudy September night, not ideal for star-gazing, 10-year-old Anthony Kosednar of Gilbert stared through the lens of a telescope at least three times his size, trying to make out a stellar configuration that could resemble E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or perhaps an airplane with its wings swept back.
Anthony was looking at the NGC457 star cluster. But imagining it as an aircraft or a quirky movie character is much more exciting for a fifth-grader.
Anthony and his brother, Robert Jr., plan to look for their astronomical discovery again at today’s 8 p.m. Skywatch program at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert. Skywatch, held on the second Friday of each month, is part of the institute’s initiative to make hands-on science and education accessible to the public. It is one of the Riparian Institute’s most popular events, prompting adults and kids to learn about stars and galaxies millions of lightyears away.
Anthony heard from a friend about the opportunity to look through giant telescopes and to peer up at the Pegasus and Cassiopeia constellations. He says he is awed by "the planets and unknown objects that we discover" through astronomy.
"I think it helps them expand their knowledge," said Robert Kosednar, Anthony’s dad. "There are not many opportunities in the Valley where there’s this avenue, especially to see and then learn about science."
Each month the Skywatch begins with a lesson inside the Southeast Regional Library, where Win Pendleton, a former physics and astronomy professor brimming with interesting facts and figures, whets the audience’s imagination with talk of planets and stars, space exploration and lunar eclipses. The topic is never the same, and the discussion is designed for amateur astronomers and science buffs of all levels.
After the sit-down session, people can wander out to the preserve, where members of the East Valley Astronomy club set up their impressive and expensive telescopes, some with remote controls and giant reflecting mirrors, and allow the public to catch a glimpse of something wonderful — star clusters and constellations and a sky full of light. People can also bring their own telescopes and get tips on how to use them.
Bill Dellinges of Apache Junction has been an amateur astronomer for 45 years and understands the impact that one chance encounter with a constellation or shooting star can have on a young mind.
Dellinges’ fascination with astronomy began at age 12 when his father helped him buy his first telescope. He later wrote to the Lick Observatory at the University of California at Santa Cruz, asking for tickets to the world’s first permanently occupied mountaintop observatory, which set the trend for virtually all others built after.
"I got to look at Saturn in a telescope and in my kid’s mind, Saturn looked like a basketball," he recalled of his trip to the observatory. "There’s few things more exciting for a kid to do than go to a real observatory at night."
And soon, kids from the East Valley will have the chance to do just that.
Before today’s Skywatch begins, there will be a ground-breaking ceremony for an observatory expected to open in February 2005. The $500,000 observatory is the first step in a plan to give the Preserve at Water Ranch the look and purpose of an educational complex, and give observers a chance to experience the sky like astronomers do. It will have a 16-inch dome, a 16-inch telescope inside and an observation deck around the structure where people can set up their own telescopes.
"It’s always good to have an observatory in your city or somewhere because it’s going to be open to the public," Dellinges said. "There’s a lot of neat stuff we can show people."
Scott Anderson, director of the Riparian Institute, said while there is slight light pollution in Gilbert, it is a decent urban location for this type of facility that will give observers an opportunity in the Valley to get up close to the stars and planets.
"I think it’s getting a chance to see things that are out there (that draws people to the Skywatch), whether they are looking at stars or constellations and sometimes we have a rare event like a comet," Anderson said. "People have seen a lot of pictures, but when they actually see it for themselves through a telescope, there’s a sense of wonder about that."
The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is a 110-acre site at Guadalupe and Greenfield roads in Gilbert used to recycle the town’s water supply through man-made lakes and ponds. The preserve is also a facility where the public participates in hands-on science activities. The programs cover a variety of topics including astronomy, bird-watching and archaeology. For more information, visit www.riparianinstitute.org.
Today’s Skywatch begins at 8 p.m. in the Southeast Regional Library. The cost is $5. There will be a ground-breaking ceremony for the new observatory at 6:30 p.m. at the preserve.
Key events for 2004
Prominent planets: Venus (morning), Saturn (morning)
Total lunar eclipse: Oct. 27
Prominent planets: Venus and Jupiter exceptionally close in the morning sky
Meteor shower: Leonids Nov. 17
Prominent planets: Saturn rises at 8:30 a.m., Mars and Venus close together on
Meteor shower: Geminids Dec. 14