Michael Beckage was 11 years old when the night sky changed his life. Peering through a high-precision telescope, he observed the golden-ringed magnificence of Saturn. The mesmerizing moment never left his heart or mind. The Seal Beach, California resident now sets up telescopes on the town’s pier to share the enchantment of the universe with neighbors and visitors. He also serves as Lowell Observatory’s advisory board chairman and is a staunch supporter of the facility’s mission to bring the cosmos to the public while conducting world-class research.
Beckage, as both the adult who makes a difference and the boy who was filled with wonder, was among the group of about 100 local leaders, donors, astronomers and educators reaching for the stars while standing under the pines on Mars Hill, Saturday, Sept. 29, celebrating the launch of the Giovale Open Deck Observatory.
“This is a unique observing plaza, the likes of which is not seen anywhere else in the world,” said Lowell Historian Kevin Schindler.
W. “Lowell” Putnam welcomed the gathering and noted 100 years of scientific research at the observatory founded by his great granduncle Percival Lowell. “Percival’s request of us to do astronomical research also meant engaging the public in the wonder and joy of discovery. In his opinion, it was imperative that the researcher explain and present their work in such a way as to allow others to be, in his word, ‘co-discoverers.’ Today, we gather to start the creation of a world-class venue that will help make that happen.”
Longtime Lowell Observatory supporters, advisors and visionaries John and Ginger Giovale provided the project’s lead gift. “Ginger and I are excited about the vision that Lowell Observatory has for creating an upgraded visitor experience,” said John. “We saw this telescope plaza project as an opportunity to kick-start that process. That’s why we jumped in and did what we did.”
The construction of the Giovale Open Deck Observatory (GODO) is the first phase of a long-range expansion plan to reach more people with astronomy education. It is also the first component of Lowell’s strategic plan to be the premiere astronomy education destination in the Americas.
“We want to be not merely an attraction, but a destination for astronomy and science education. We want that to benefit not only us, but Flagstaff and the region through increased visibility, and through higher and longer visitation,” said Lowell Director Jeff Hall. “Lowell is unique in being able to connect its thriving research programs to its outreach programs, giving our visitors the opportunity not only to learn about current research in astronomy, but to meet the professional astronomers carrying out those projects.”
The $3 million GODO will include a 4,300-square-foot, elevated plaza along with a roll-off building that will house a suite of six sophisticated telescopes. These will be used for observing through eyepieces, as well as projecting images onto monitors.
“Currently, Lowell’s public telescope viewing area is confined to a relatively limited area of the Mars Hill campus. This means that on busy nights, guests aren’t able to access all of the telescopes in a timely manner, with crowds flocking around this congested space. GODO will be located west of this current area, allowing for the crowds to spread out,” said Schindler. “One of the telescopes will be linked with a spectrograph, an instrument that breaks light down into its individual components (spectra). Viewing with this will show real-time spectra from objects in deep space, helping visitors to understand how astronomers know what things are made of and how fast and in which direction they are moving.”
In addition, the 32-inch StarStructure Horizon Series Reflector has such a massive light grasp that it will allow visitors to see details of galaxies, and clouds of gas and dust where stars are born. The 10-foot long red and brass 8-inch Victorian Style Refracting Telescope will not only be beautiful to look at, but its white light daytime views of the Sun and sharp nighttime views of the Moon, planets, double stars and star clusters will combine the style of 19th-century telescopes with modern technology, linking Lowell’s historic past and present.
Although the GODO impact will be primarily for public programs, astronomer Gerard van Belle says visiting students will likely use it for training and observing. “It has not been lost on the astronomers here at Lowell that these are research-grade telescopes, so there is some interest on their part in ‘after hours’ observing. The sorts of science topics that can be addressed by these telescopes include detection and characterization of extrasolar planets, stellar rotation, stellar brightness studies and light curves of tumbling asteroids in our solar system.”
Currently, the observatory’s programs attract more than 100,000 visitors a year, far beyond its design capacity with the current parking lot and visitor center. The long-range plan calls for a much larger and more interactive visitor center, a restaurant, heated outdoor seating for cold night viewing and improved facilities, like restrooms, so families can comfortably spend the day exploring far beyond the planet.
Susan and Bill Ahearn of Phoenix are providing funds to pay for an artfully designed public restroom building to accompany the GODO. At the groundbreaking event, the couple recounted their first camping trip together in 1971 near the San Francisco Peaks. “Nothing compares to the night sky of Northern Arizona,” said Bill.
“Lowell Observatory added to our knowledge of astronomy,” said Susan. “There were no public programs then as there are today. Every now and then we would see in the newspaper that Lowell was going to have an evening open house. We’d jump at the opportunity.”
The Ahearns have witnessed the observatory’s popularity soar over the years. “We were in total agreement that the [GODO] project needed to include restrooms now, not sometime in the future!”
“Those of us who support the GODO do so because we know that experiences at Lowell Observatory change lives forever,” said Beckage, who expressed this sentiment that he and his wife, Bridget, share. “Our longstanding mission to comprehend the mysteries of the universe, and to share the magic of that knowledge with the public, drives our desire to offer ever more magical experiences on Mars Hill.”
He emphasized that the Giovale Open Deck Observatory will touch lives far into the future. “From the mature adult who has never seen the craters, mountains and lava planes on the Moon to the 11-year-old girl who marvels at Saturn for the very first time and just might be the first person to walk on Mars, this facility will bring smiles, inspire awe, spark careers in science and change lives!” FBN
By Bonnie Stevens, FBN