Local stars broke ground for Rio Rancho’s eyes on the sky Saturday.
The City of Rio Rancho and the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society had their groundbreaking for a roll-top observatory and planetarium at Rainbow Park during RRAS’s second annual Night Under the Stars fundraiser.
The planned observatory will house two large donated stationary telescopes, plus a third, portable telescope, said RRAS member Jim Meassick.
Money will likely stretch far enough to build a small open-air planetarium, the second phase. Also, Melanie Templet, RRAS president and driving force behind the effort, said Harris Jewelers is providing an interactive sundial, where people can stand in a certain place and tell time with their shadow.
“I hope the community gets comfortable with the science of astronomy,” she said.
Templet also wants to provide a place for students to get hands-on teaching in the field. The astronomical society has been working with Rio Rancho Public Schools, the University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.
Along with hosting students, Templet said RRAS hopes to have star- and sun-gazes, guest speakers, teacher workshops, summer camps and, maybe, birthday parties. She would like people to appreciate that they live in a place with skies dark enough to see the Milky Way.
“Not many people have that anymore,” Templet said.
The astronomical society has committed to maintaining and operating the observatory.
The city, Sandoval County, McDonald’s owner Julian Garza, URI LLC Design and Construction, K Star Electric, Jaynes Corporation and Lafarge are all contributing money or labor to the observatory. Boy Scout Michael Brown has been scheduling work at the site as an Eagle Scout project.
City Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director Jay Hart said it was good to see the community come together to make something good happen.
“It really intrigued all of us to think about having an observatory in one of the city parks,” he said.
Hart expects the observatory to be popular. Even Saturday night, neighbors stopped by to see what was going on, and one, who already owned a telescope, said his family would get involved with the observatory.
Former City Councilor Mike Williams, who contributed council District 1 discretionary money, said the observatory would be great for the district, city, county and region.
The astronomical society has been working toward the facility for five years.
Templet said she’s from Baton Rouge, La., where a club operates an observatory that Louisiana State University and the city cooperated to build in a park. She wanted to have the same thing in Rio Rancho.
A donation of the two stationary telescopes two years ago made that dream possible, because telescopes are one of the most expensive parts of an observatory, she said.