Gazing at Smith
grace the cover of People magazine,
but the stars at this party are just as ogled as the ones
at Hollywood’s glitziest soirees.
Students and faculty in astronomy, star gazers and fans
of the heavens will gather on the rooftop of McConnell Hall
this week, as they do about once a month, to socialize, sip
cocoa and coffee, and take a studied look at their favorite
Those in the astronomy department, which hosts the occasional
events, call it a star party. It takes place from 8:30 to
9:30 p.m. this Thursday, March 15.
What the star
party attendees see depends on several factors—what
time of year it is, how clear the sky is of clouds, and how
prevalent surrounding light pollution is.
“We look at whatever is up,” says Meg Thacher,
a lab instructor in astronomy, who coordinates the occasional
sky-leering sessions. “If the moon is up, we always
keep a telescope pointed at it. It’s really quite spectacular
through a telescope, and I think people take the moon too
much for granted. We’ll always point to planets if
there are any visible. We’re able to see a lot from
Despite the star
presence, the atmosphere at these parties is casual, attests
Thacher. “We serve refreshments
in our teaching lab downstairs, and people are free to come
in to warm up and talk astronomy.”
Though the stargazing
sessions are relaxed and friendly, their objective is academic,
says Thacher. “This is
really our opportunity to show the community what the [astronomy]
department is all about, and to teach them a little something
about astronomy and the night sky.”
Star party attendees
view the sky through one of several telescopes that belong
to the astronomy department, set up on the McConnell roof.
Thacher is joined by other faculty, teaching assistants
and astronomy majors in staffing the telescopes, helping
viewers use them, and explaining what they’re seeing.
Two large, permanently mounted telescopes are always available,
one with a 12-inch aperture, the other with a 16-inch.
Smaller telescopes are also set up, with 8-inch apertures.
Though the air
is still cold in the March nighttime, Thacher says winter
is the best time to view space. “We never
break for cold,” she says. “The sky tends to
be better during the colder months.”
the department hosts a special party to view extraordinary
astral events, such as a sunrise star party last year to
view the transit of Venus, and one to look at Mars. Also,
says Thacher, “we always have one when
there’s a lunar eclipse.”
Though the star
parties are heavy on astronomy and attended mostly by those
interested in that field, they are open to all in the Smith
community, and the topics of conversation spill beyond
the sky. “When we’re down in the
lab warming up with the cookies and the cocoa, or after we’ve
shut down the roof, we talk about just about anything,” Thacher
says. “Astronomy is usually a starting point, though.”
To attend an astronomy department star party, simply show
up at the McConnell roof at 8:30 p.m. Remaining star parties
this semester are Friday, April 16, and Thursday, April 26.