Originally Published: January 10, 2008 9:50 p.m.
PRESCOTT - The list of Prescott Astronomy Club free public events during its fifth anniversary year is bigger and better than ever, with the help of new local participants such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The 2008 events kick off at 6 p.m. Saturday with the first Star Party at Watson Lake Park. The club will have plenty of telescopes for viewing winter constellations.
Club member Leon Corcoran will show people how to take photos of objects in the sky. This is a perfect time of year for photography because of the lack of summer thermals, noted Corcoran, who worked in aerospace engineering and sales. Patio heaters and hot chocolate from Cuppers Coffee House will help people stay warm.
Embry-Riddle offers the only Space Physics undergraduate program in the entire nation, so it's a perfect fit with the community astronomy events.
The university also is the only place in Arizona with a NASA Educator Resource Center. It operates through the budget of the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., which is NASA's primary center for atmospheric flight research and operations.
ERAU NASA Center Director Stacy DeVeau offers monthly teacher workshops with NASA materials, plus a weeklong summer program for teachers. She organizes an annual statewide math and science Olympics for middle school students.
"We think it's great" to have the NASA center at ERAU, Physics Chair Darrel Smith said.
DeVeau will be at the Astronomy Club's After-School Astronomy event at the Prescott Public Library April 16 during the Spotlight on the Stars week. She'll offer hands-on activities for students in grades 3-7.
Then, on April 19, she'll conduct a free teacher workshop to show teachers how to lead hands-on astronomy activities.
"NASA has some wonderful programs," she said.
Embry-Riddle's 3-year-old observatory will offer an open house during the "Spotlight on the Stars" week on April 15. The observatory features a 12-inch telescope for viewing the stars as well as a CDT telescope next door that tracks near-Earth objects such as comets and satellites. Computer screens allow handicapped access to the integrated photos of galaxies, planets and the moon.
"It's been a great attractor to have people come out and look at the night sky," Smith said of the observatory.
DeVeau will offer a variety of activities in conjunction with the observatory open house, such as participation in the NASA star count project.
The university will bring out extra telescopes for the open house so people don't have to wait to view the sky, including some with GPS tracking. The Astronomy Club does the same thing for its Star Parties, which will take place seven times this year.
Embry-Riddle will showcase some of its cutting-edge research during the Astronomy Club's Feb. 21 Star Talk.
Dr. Michele Zanolin and Dr. Andri Gretarsson will discuss ERAU's involvement in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, the largest project National Science Foundation has ever sponsored.
The LIGO project is searching the universe for collisions of massive objects in an attempt to prove Einstein's theory that if two massive objects collide, they produce gravitational radiation, Smith explained. It seeks a whole new way to view the universe and its origins.
ERAU is helping to increase the sensitivity of the LIGO mirrors that seek out gravitational waves, Smith explained. They already are so sensitive that they can detect objects one-thousandth the size of a proton.
Some of the club's Star Talks series speakers also will offer more technological talks to students and the public at ERAU. (That schedule is not yet complete.)
"We're really happy that Embry-Riddle has this much interest with what we're doing," said Meghan Taylor-Gebler, who organizes the club's publicity.
The club is interested in what ERAU does, too.
Prescott Astronomy Club member Ray Fobes is helping ERAU set up three new radio telescopes that will examine pulsars and sources of hydrogen, such as the birthplaces of new stars, Smith said. They probably will be in use by this fall.
This isn't the first tine Astronomy Club members have helped ERAU, Smith said. He's impressed with club members' backgrounds.
The impressive list of local and regional experts involved in the club's events never ceases to amaze onlookers and co-sponsors.
Another example is Harold Minuskin, who met club members recently when they were setting up a display at the library. He lives in Prescott and commutes to work in Pasadena at the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is the lead center in the U.S. for robotic exploration of the solar system.
The club recruited Minuskin to join its Star Talks series, a series of eight talks this year at the Prescott Public Library. He'll be the first speaker of the year, discussing space photography on Monday, Jan. 17.
"The astronomy program really has been an inspiration in the way it's grown," said Sharon Seymour, lead librarian for adult services at the Prescott Public Library. "It's just so interesting, and now it's starting to get a rhythm."
The program has seen continued support from a variety of well-known institutions, from Northern Arizona University to the Vatican (which operates an observatory in Arizona).
The city government, which hosts Astronomy Club events at its library and the parks and rec department, has been a huge supporter of the Astronomy Club events too.
The public apparently is impressed with the events, since they attract an extra 1,500 visitors to the library just during the annual April "Spotlight on the Stars," the most intensive week of Astronomy Club events.
About 80-90 people attend each of the "Third Thursdays Star Talks" that the club sponsors at the library eight times this year on the third Thursday of the month, Seymour said.
Taylor-Gebler and other club members hope that the popularity of the club's events will translate into more student interest in math and science.
Perhaps more than any other science, space science "sparks the imagination," Smith said.
It worked on him as a child; he'll never forget the first time he saw Saturn through a telescope.
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