Out & About: Dartmouth resumes public astronomy events 

The Shattuck Observatory was built in 1854 and is the oldest science building on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H. It sits on the western edge of College Park with a weather data collection station and two more small astronomical observation buildings. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Shattuck Observatory was built in 1854 and is the oldest science building on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H. It sits on the western edge of College Park with a weather data collection station and two more small astronomical observation buildings. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-24-2024 8:30 PM

HANOVER — Talking about space with community members — especially children — helps Dartmouth College astronomy graduate students Keighley Rockcliffe and Stephanie Podjed reconnect with the passion and curiosity that brought them to their chosen field.

That’s one of the reasons they’re both looking forward to relaunching the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s public observing gatherings during a free family-friendly event from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday at 15 Observatory Road in Hanover.

It will be the first time since March 2020 that people can visit the department, where graduate students frequently hosted public night sky viewing groups prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. After Saturday’s kickoff, the students are hoping to host monthly public events.

“As much as I like talking with adults, children always have a way of making me remember why I love being in astronomy and outreach in general, because they have amazing questions and ideas that I sometimes wouldn’t think of!” Podjed, who is co-leading the kickoff with Rockcliffe, wrote in an email. “So it is great that we will be able to welcome them back to our events and (hopefully) pique their interest in science.”

Saturday’s activities include telescope observations, constellation tours, astronomy and physics demonstrations and astronomy-themed crafts. Around a dozen graduate students, and a handful of undergraduate students, are participating. Podjed, along with another graduate student, will demonstrate the department’s portable telescopes.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy includes Shattuck Observatory — the 1854 building and antique telescope located inside — as well as the neighboring North Shed Telescope, where the majority of the public viewings are held. Saturday’s activities also will take place in Fairchild Tower, which connected to Wilder Hall and located across the street from the observatory. There also is a chance the observatory itself will be open for tours. Some of the activities, including those in the North Shed, are weather dependent.

“Personally, getting to talk with people, from kids to seniors, about the wonders of space reinvigorates my own curiosity and passion for what I study,” Rockcliffe wrote in an email. “There’s a big difference between staring at a computer all day and getting to witness that sparkle of excitement and curiosity in someone’s eyes when you talk to them about space.”

As discussions began about how to resume public viewing, Marie Calapa, manager of instructional labs for the physics and astronomy department, suggested that the reopening be focused on children. Saturday’s activities are appropriate for children ages 3 and up, she said, and there will be demonstrations that are directed at older children, as well as adults. “We’re hoping to move to a model that’s rain or shine,” Calapa said in a phone interview. Previously, public observing nights were dependent on if the sky was clear. Going forward, the plan is to have engaging astronomy-related activities that aren’t connected to using telescopes.

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Astronomy graduate students have long been active in the community, particularly with children, from serving as mentors to co-organizing the Montshire Museum of Science’s annual Astronomy Day. When Podjed reached out to the Norwich museum to ask if they’d participate in the kickoff event, staff quickly agreed: They will be bringing a portable planetarium called a StarLab, where people can sit inside an inflatable dome and view a projection of the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky.

“The students are just so enthusiastic,” Adam Blankenbicker, the Montshire’s director of education, said in a phone interview. “We have these young researchers who can really bring a lot of energy to the programs to connect with the kids who they want to inspire to be scientists and engineers.”

That enthusiasm goes both ways: Rockcliffe is hoping to catch a StarLab show, which she’s never seen before.

“While of course I am looking forward to sharing my love for space with so many people, I am also looking forward to feeling like a kid again, myself,” she wrote.

For more information, visit sites.dartmouth.edu/publicobserving/special-events/. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.