Georgia Tech Observatory Holds Final Public Night of Semester

The Georgia Tech Observatory will host its final Public Night of the semester on Thursday.

GT Observatory
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“We try to schedule the Public Night at the best phases of the moon, which is first quarter or half full,” said observatory assistant for the semester Nicole Cabrera. “We stay away from the full moon, so people can see the detail between the light and the dark of the terminator [the line dividing the dark and light on the moon’s surface]. In Atlanta, there’s so much light pollution, so we regularly view the moon and the brighter planets.”

Cabrera adds a festive atmosphere will accompany the evening, as food and other items will be available to those who attend the April 22 event, from 8:30 to 11 p.m. atop the Howey Physics Building. A short, 15-minute information session will precede the event, speaking to the crowd about what objects they will be viewing. “The Orion nebula, Saturn and—of course—the moon will be visible, weather permitting,” Cabrera said. “If it’s a really good night, we can look at some other objects: a star cluster, binary system and other nebulae.”

Directed by Senior Academic Professional James Sowell, the Georgia Tech Observatory hosts an “open house” to Tech students and other visitors each month. On a clear night, Cabrera says, the observatory may host anywhere from 80 to 100 people, but the average number of visitors is roughly 60. During the Fall 2008 Family Weekend, 556 people visited the observatory. While in the past more off-campus visitors have attended public nights, this academic year has seen an increase in more student attendants.

WREK Radio hosted a Sunday Special on April 18 with deejay Daniel Mitchell at 7 p.m. in recognition of the event. Cabrera answered students’ questions, submitted in advance, during the segment.

“People are usually really interested in black holes, supernovae,” said observatory assistant Nicole Cabrera, who recently received her undergraduate degree from the School of Physics. “But questions can be about anything related to astronomy—the solar system, the sun, comets or even asteroids.”

While a good way to promote Public Night, Cabrera said the radio appearance was also a good way to clear up common misconceptions people may have about astronomy. In an undergraduate class she attended, for example, people were confused how the revolution of the earth around the sun caused the seasons. “Some people think the earth has an eccentric or elliptical orbit, and depending on whether it’s further or closer to the sun is how the seasons work,” she said. “That isn’t true—the earth has a nearly circular orbit. The tilt of the earth’s axis is responsible for the seasons.”

While a resource to the Georgia Tech Astronomy Club and School of Physics students, Sowell has used the observatory as an opportunity for outreach. Groups are able to book private events. Most recently, the Georgia Tech Environmental Health and Safety Group, as well as fraternities, sororities, residence halls and other student groups, have attended viewings at the observatory.

Sowell also takes this outreach to off-campus audiences. Area school groups have attended private events, and more than 200 Boy Scouts in the past 2 ½ years have received their astronomy merit badges through the observatory. Reaching out across the globe, Sowell and the Georgia Tech Observatory have held high-definition video conferencing with schools for astronomy outreach, including seven elementary schools in Texas and a girls’ school in Sydney, Australia.

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