The dome-shaped structure is an astronomical observatory, which is Star Trekkie not only in the fact that flipping a switch causes a section to rise and reveal the sky, but that flipping another switch causes the whole dome to rotate, so the telescope can view various portions of the sky.
The observatory came into being because Niles West lucked out twice, according to science teacher Elizabeth Ramsayer.
First, back in 2005, Ramsayer and fellow science teacher Richard DeCoster (DeCoster has since retired) won an Illinois State Board of Education grant that included money to buy the Meade 10" LX 200 telescope and also make numerous summer trips to Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin for the two teachers to study with University of Chicago astronomers.
For years, the teachers carried the precious telescope around in a black case and laboriously hoisted it onto a tripod when they wanted to set it up for community and school sky-watching.
On Thursday, Ramsayer demonstrated how the telescope can spin, aim and search the sky for something to "see." When it does spot something, it can take a photo, which Ramsayer or students can then submit to astrometry.net.
"You take a picture of the sky and submit it to that site, and it tells you which constellations are present," she said.
"It does complex triangulation--essentially it knows the patterns, the distance apart, of the constellations."
Ramsayer teaches a senior-level astrophysics course, which she said is not a survey course (or a course about astronomy) but rather teaches students to measure light and learn the way astronomers learn.
"We talk about how we know what we know in the sky," she said. "For instance, Aldeberan is coming up tonight. How do I know it's a red giant, and about to end its life?"
Community members will also get in on these inquiries when Ramsayer holds community viewings, which she hopes to do about once a month. A website listing such events is in the works.
The "next big thing" for celestial viewing is coming up in early December--the comet Ison.
"It's supposed to be as bright as the full moon," Ramsayer said. "That'll be eerie."
Niles Township residents are invited to a grand opening for the observatory Wedneday, Oct. 23 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. A string quartet is scheduled to play selections from Holst's "The Planets."
The observatory is located in the parking lot south of the school, which is at 5701 W. Oakton. Visitors may enter from Gross Point Road or Oakton Street.