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Star Gazing at Smith


They won’t 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 celestial bodies.

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 that roof!”

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.”

Occasionally, 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.


3/13/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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