Reaching for the stars

A spiral galaxy known as NGC 1433 is seen in an undated image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (photo credit: REUTERS)
A spiral galaxy known as NGC 1433 is seen in an undated image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Givatayim Observatory, founded in 1968, is the oldest public center for the study of outer space in Israel and the largest in the Gush Dan area. The observatory is situated in a concrete building at Ha’aliya Hashniya Park overlooking the cityscape of Tel Aviv, although today’s bright city lights have marred the nighttime space visibility that the founders enjoyed back in the ’60s and ’70s.
Garden-lined pathways that run through a recently renovated playground and a man-made pond make for calming strolls. The observatory has adorned the park with space-oriented learning apparatuses. A sundial of sorts provides a study in the telling of time. Monuments representing planets of the solar system are spread out throughout the park at the distances proportional to their position in space.
Funded by the Givatayim Municipality, the site offers weekly public tours and courses in astronomy for all ages, children’s workshops and special lectures – with the number of visitors growing significantly.
Compared to world-class observatories, the Givatayim Observatory comes across as small and low-tech. Even Dr. Igal Patel, who recently retired from his post as CEO of the observatory and chairman of the Israeli Astronomical Association, which is headquartered there, has called it “a speck of dust” compared to major international observato- ries. But what’s important, he said, is that many local leaders in the field chart their path in astronomy here; volunteers or instructors have gone on to populate the country with more facilities dedicated to space study – what he characterizes as a “breakthrough,” said Patel. There are over a dozen private and public observatories across Israel; Tel Aviv University’s Wise Observatory in Mitzpe Ramon is the largest.
At the Givatayim Observatory, presentations and tours are open to the public twice a week (times vary according to season) and begin with a family-friendly classroom lecture (for ages eight and up). The orientation provides facts on the major space “bodies” – the sun, moon, meteors, asteroids, comets, nebulae, galaxies – that segue into part two of the tour: the “Planetarium.”
In what looks like a small moon bounce – and hence a treat for the kids – visitors look up at a plastic domed “sky” that mimics the star - scape on a clear night. In this cozy space, a staffer “star gazes” with the audience, pointing out famous stars and constellations sometimes visible to the naked eye.
Some of these constellations could then be viewed on the rooftop terrace of the observatory through telescopes positioned by observa- tory staffers. (The main telescope is located in a dome and is dedicat- ed to imaging and research.) Summer is the season for Mars, Venus and Mercury. On May 9, the observatory will host a special talk in honor of Mercury coming between the Sun and the Earth, a cosmic event that does not occur every year.
The modest size of the Givatayim Observatory should not belie Israel’s advances in the field of astronomy. “You cannot separate the field of astronomy from the space achievements of Israelis,” Patel said. “Israel is one of nine or 10 nations that have the capability to launch satellites. So space technology in Israel is very developed.”
In homage to this historic site, NASA administrator Charles Bolden will pay a visit to the observatory on his June trip to Israel. As a sign of the Jewish state’s active role in the field of space research, the Interna- tional Astronautical Congress was held in Jerusalem last year, during which NASA renewed a cooperation agreement with Israel. In the digital age, Patel said, research in the field need not have regular access to gargantuan observatories to make discoveries: “The sky’s the limit.” •
The observatory is located on 66 Hameri Street, Givatayim. Open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting at 7:30 pm. Adults, NIS 30; children, NIS 25; students and seniors, NIS 20. Info: (03) 573-1152 or