East Valley stargazers are focusing their attention on Mesa Community College, where they can explore the universe for free.
The college’s physical science department is offering astronomy nights at no cost to the public on the first Friday of each month at the school’s new $800,000 planetarium.
The department presents half-hour shows inside the 53-seat domed theater and offers opportunities to view the sky through outdoor telescopes aimed at the moon, Saturn and other heavenly bodies.
The MCC facility at Southern Avenue and Dobson Road is the first planetarium in Mesa and the seventh in Arizona — a state renowned for its astronomical facilities. It’s also the state’s newest, having opened in September.
“It really is a focal point for astronomy in the East Valley,” said director Kevin Healy.
For the April show last Friday, the star dome offered a tour of the spring sky, showing where the prominent stars, planets and constellations are located this time of year. Other programs have followed the Mars Rovers and toured the solar system.
The Evans & Sutherland Digistar 3 projector displays not just the night sky but also full-dome video for an immersive visual experience.
“It’s akin to something you might see in a movie theater but projected on a dome,” Healy said. “It’s like what you would see if you were flying around in a little space ship.”
Visitors at last Friday’s show said they were impressed.
“I think it’s pretty awesome,” said David Madden, a Mesa resident. “When you sit down, you can see everything … It’s a nice addition to the campus.”
Another Mesa resident, Skip Carney, said the free programs help to connect the college to the community.
“They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said of the MCC astronomy staff. “This is a terrific building. The labs and everything they have here, they could go nose-to-nose with anything at ASU.”
Jocelyn Weber, a Chandler resident who brought her two grandchildren to see the show, said “we do need to know there is something other than just the Earth. … I think it’s so beautiful to see the night sky.”
The planetarium also is used for MCC astronomy classes and for presentations to visiting school and community groups. In its first six months, the planetarium has presented shows to just about every age group from preschoolers to retirees, Healy said.
The automated programs are supplied by Evans & Sutherland, a Salt Lake City-based company that specializes in digital theater and computer graphics technology.
“All the operator has to do is just press a button,” Healy said. “And at the end of the show, staff members are on hand to answer any questions.”
Some programs also are developed by the MCC staff, and a video greeting to the audience has been recorded by MCC President Shouan Pan.
The planetarium was a long-time goal of the physical science department. The dream came true after Maricopa County voters approved a bond issue in 2004 for community college projects, which included a new Physical Science building at the main MCC campus.
MCC officials had hoped to raise additional money from private sources to pay for the planetarium, but those efforts were unsuccessful, said department chairman Mike Sims. Therefore, the planetarium was entirely funded through the bond sale, he said.
And that’s why there’s no charge to the public.
“It was paid for by tax money, so we will keep it as free as possible,” Sims said.
The next astronomy night will be held on the first Friday of June, Healy said. No May show is scheduled because it’s near the end of the school semester — a hectic time for faculty. Further shows are planned in July and August and into the fall.
The July show will be held on the second Friday of that month because the first falls on the Fourth of July weekend, he said.
Eight half-hour shows start at 6 p.m., with the last beginning at 9:30 p.m. Telescope viewing is available from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Other Arizona planetariums are located at the Arizona Science Center in downtown Phoenix, Challenger Learning Center in Peoria, Arizona State University in Tempe, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and the University of Arizona in Tucson. Also, a classroom-size planetarium is located at Scottsdale Community College.