The N.C. Science Festival, a 17-day statewide series of events featuring science, technology, engineering and mathematics, began April 5 with Star Parties at many locations, including the new observatory at UNC Charlotte.
The festival was the first public activity at the recently finished observatory.
Offering two sessions for 60 visitors each, organizers had to close registration a week before the event. In addition to information-filled goodie bags at the UNCC Star Party, there was a table bearing photos, stickers and other free stuff, run by Judy Walker, director of the N.C. NASA Educator Resource Center at UNCC.
Visitors were treated to three telescope stations for observing the stars.
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Madison Young, a senior in the Department of Physics and Optical Science, used a solar filter on a Questar 3.5-inch reflector telescope to look at the solar spots on the sun as it was setting. She adjusted the viewing position, which included treetops on the horizon, then exclaimed, “Wow! It looks just like a piece of artwork!” as the red sun silhouetted the tree limbs.
After dark, Young helped visitors view the Pleiades star cluster, roughly 440 light years from Earth – a relatively short distance when compared to the breadth of the Milky Way galaxy, which is 100,000 light years across.
Fireworks no big deal
At the 10-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector telescope, 10-year-old Sam Park was looking at Jupiter, only 46 light minutes from Earth.
“It looks pretty cool,” Sam said. “I’ve always been into all kinds of science,” he added before hopping down off the viewing ladder.
Even the eruption of a fireworks show at the nearby baseball field could not pry 7-year-old Andy Kovacs from the telescope as he looked at Jupiter before the second session started.
Inside the observatory on the most powerful telescope – a 14-inch reflector – partygoers were treated to a view of the Orion Nebula, which is 1,400 light years from Earth in the constellation Orion.
A nebula is a cloud of gas and dust (hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases), observatory Director Catherine Qualtrough explained.
A nursery for stars
The Orion Nebula is especially important, as it’s a place where new stars are actively forming in our own galaxy – a kind of stellar nursery. The gas is made to glow by the extremely hot, bright young stars, so we get a beautiful display through a telescope.
Martha White was excited when she heard about the star party, saying, “I have always wanted to go to an observatory.”
After looking at the Orion Nebula, she said it was “amazing. I have never seen anything like it, and the roof sliding off is cool, too.”
The old observatory had to be sacrificed for the new football stadium at UNCC. A new 150-square-foot building with a flat, retractable roof for viewing was erected on campus next to the police building and the North Deck parking deck.
The new 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector telescope was purchased and installed in January by the Department of Physics and Optical Science under the leadership of professor Glenn Boreman.
More events planned
Qualtrough is planning for the observatory to host public events every three to four weeks, but she hasn’t set a calendar yet. Qualtrough will post updates on coming programs on the observatory’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/UNCCharlotteObservatory?ref=ts&fref=ts.
The next hands-on N.C. Science Festival event at UNCC will be the Science and Technology Expo, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 21. There will be activities and demonstrations for all ages featuring science, engineering and computer science.
For more information on the N.C. Science Festival, including a calendar of events across the state, go to www.ncsciencefestival.org.