Upcoming Fountain Hills observatory plans to show us the stars | Phoenix New Times

Upcoming Fountain Hills dark sky observatory plans to show us the stars

The International Dark Sky Discovery Center will allow stargazers to observe the final frontier.
Concept art for the International Dark Sky Discovery Center.
Concept art for the International Dark Sky Discovery Center. Courtesy of International Dark Sky Discovery Center
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“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” starts the famous scroll from the movie “Star Wars.” It’s a renowned sci-fi movie line, but it also suggests the fascination humankind has with the stories the universe holds.

Soon, Arizona will be a place where some real celestial mysteries will be explored and documented for future generations. To some, it may not be as exciting as a Hollywood space fantasy, but to others, it’s a step closer to understanding the final frontier.

The International Dark Sky Discovery Center in Fountain Hills, scheduled to open in fall 2025, is designed to be a place where people can come and hopefully find a few answers for themselves. From the curious or the scientific, the huge structure will be the earthly connection between us and the heavens.

Phoenix New Times spoke with Joe Bill and Jeff Esposito, president and vice president of the International Dark Sky Discovery Center Board respectively. They break down why the center is so important, its location and how you can get involved with the project.

Phoenix New Times: Whose idea was it to build the International Dark Sky Facility?
Joe Bill: Several Fountain Hills residents were inspired by the prestigious designation of Fountain Hills as the world’s 17th International Dark Sky Community. That’s very rare for a community close to a metropolitan area.

What exactly is the International Dark Sky Facility?
Bill: It will be an amazing 23,000-square-foot science-based educational facility with five major components: observatory, planetarium, theater, exhibit hall, Einstein Exploration Station. The International Dark Sky Discovery Center will have activities for people of all ages. There will be a planetarium with a variety of educational programs, a theater with videos that support the overall mission of the facility, an exhibit hall that informs people of the importance of dark sky preservation and an observatory that is capable of public viewing, astrophotography, research and remote operation, and will be handicapped accessible.

What's going on with naming rights for the center?
Jeff Esposito: It is a rare opportunity for donors to get naming rights on a unique, science-based facility that will receive recognition worldwide. Our facility is on the forefront of a global movement to preserve dark skies. We have followers from around the world watching our progress and cheering us on as we work to fulfill a mission that inspires people to preserve dark skies. The IDSDC Board is seeking at least $8 million for signature naming rights for the entire center. Naming rights are also available for at least $2 million for specific elements of the center including the observatory, theater or the Immersion Zone.
click to enlarge People in construction hats at a groundbreaking.
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the International Dark Sky Discovery Center was held in April.
Courtesy of International Dark Sky Discovery Center

What's the current status of the project?
Esposito: The ceremonial groundbreaking was held on April 8 with over 1,000 people in attendance. It’s a $25 million project and we have so far raised $19 million. The additional funds are needed to make sure the facility has the necessary equipment to be a world-class facility. The telescope in the observatory will be a 27.5-inch PlaneWave Telescope and will be the largest telescope in the greater Phoenix area. The Discovery Center will also have multiple 11-inch Celestron telescopes for viewing on the outdoor private viewing terrace.

Why is it important to have this facility, and why in Fountain Hills?
Bill: Fountain Hills became the 17th International Dark Sky Community in the world when it achieved this prestigious recognition in 2018. Because of its unpopulated surroundings and being shielded from Phoenix lights by the McDowell Mountains, Fountain Hills is sometimes referred to as a dark sky oasis in the Valley of the Sun. One year ago, the Smithsonian opened the "Lights Out" exhibit, and out of the over 200 designated international dark sky places (which includes dark sky parks, dark sky communities and dark sky reserves) from around the world, it chose to highlight just 13. Fountain Hills is one of those 13. It is important to note the International Dark Sky Discovery Center will not be a Fountain Hills attraction. It will be an international attraction in Fountain Hills that will benefit the entire state of Arizona.

Silly question: Might people see UFOs?
Bill: Perhaps not, but thanks to the dark skies in Fountain Hills and the planned observatory, visitors will get breathtaking views of the planets, the stars and the Milky Way. For many, viewing most astronomical events is a challenge because of light pollution. Eighty percent of Americans cannot view the Milky Way from where they live because of light pollution. Fountain Hills is a notable exception.

To learn how you can help with this special project and donation opportunities you can go to The International Dark Sky Discovery Center's website
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