Sixteen years ago this month, then Arizona Daily Sun editor Randy Wilson and I exchanged a few emails about creating a biweekly astronomy column. With northern Arizona’s rich heritage of astronomical research and education, punctuated by Flagstaff’s designation as the world’s first International Dark Sky City just two years prior, Randy felt readers would be interested in such a feature.
Specific topics for any given column could be far ranging, from noteworthy celestial events and important characters who have studied the skies, to astronomy’s place in everyday life and the workings of modern space scientists in Flagstaff and beyond. With typical ingenuity, Randy suggested a name that was at once poetic and personal, with a twist of double entendre: The View from Mars Hill.
The title suggests both a subjective perspective about matters of space from the prime resident of Mars Hill, Lowell Observatory, as well as an allusion to peering at the cosmos from the rise also known as Observatory Mesa. This celestial laboratory is certainly not the only center of astronomical study in northern Arizona but it is the oldest — at least in modern terms, setting aside the workings of the Sinagua who lived in the area centuries ago.
It also suitably represents the communication of astronomy — both in terms of research and education — that is carried out at Northern Arizona University, the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station, United States Geological Survey, Meteor Crater, Coconino Community College, the areas k-12 schools, the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, astronomy clubs such as the Coconino Astronomical Society, and the like.
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The name also conjures up a certain vision OF Mars Hill, with the iconic Clark and Pluto discovery telescope domes flanking the historic Slipher Building — with its characteristic Rotunda Museum — and other longstanding monuments to scientific pursuits. It’s a view so familiar to residents and visitors alike.
But on this day in particular (Oct. 5, 2019), we see a new view of Mars Hill as Lowell Observatory unveils its new state-of-the-art public telescope observing plaza. Opening of the Giovale Open Deck Observatory, as it’s called, is the first step in Lowell’s plan of becoming the premier public astronomy education center in the world. The new facility can well be described as “stargazing reimagined,” with a suite of six advanced telescopes that collectively allow guests to discover the wonders of the universe for themselves by peering through eyepieces, examining live celestial images projected onto screens, and seeing firsthand some of the methods that astronomers use to study space.
As Lowell opens this innovative facility, staff members are already planning out the next step of the expansion, a three-story, $29-million astronomy discovery center set to open in 2023. Sixteen years ago few, if any, people — inside or outside of Lowell — envisioned this new view of Mars Hill. Yet here we are today, climbing the steps of the future, creating a new, reimagined view of Mars Hill and, by extension, northern Arizona.