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200 stargazers kick off Space Week at Motlow College

Oct. 8, 2014

by Kelly Lapczynski, Tullahoma News
Reprinted with permission

Nearly 200 amateur astronomers gathered on the grounds of Motlow College Saturday night to kick off World Space Week under the stars with nationally recognized educator Billy Hix, director of Motlow's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program.

Motlow College hosted a star party Saturday night to kick off Space Week. From left are volunteer Larry Hice; Virginia Dennis, Girl Scout Service Unit 155 manager and assistant troop leader of Troop 2878 from Cascade; MaryAnna Patton and Alisha Osland. -Tullahoma News Staff Photo by Chris Barstad.
Before the skies had darkened enough for stargazing, Hix, a teacher liaison for the Space Foundation of Colorado and a consultant for NASA, welcomed eager October Skies Star Party visitors to examine the near-full moon through one of three research telescopes.

Having three scopes at hand is unusual at such an event, Hix says. Usually, because he can only operate a single telescope for viewers at a time, he brings only one. But with his own 12" computer-driven Meade telescope and another 14" Meade provided by the Motlow Foundation (operated by volunteer enthusiast Larry Hise), Hix was already ahead of the game when David Galloway from Huntsville's Von Braun Astronomical Society volunteered to help with the local program, bringing a 6" scope with him.

As the skies darkened, Hix lead viewers through a slide show detailing Earth's position in the solar system and its small footprint in the larger context of the Universe. In that context, he said, the Earth is "pitifully little."

He also reminded comers that the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, is still in orbit, having crossed "the imaginary line where it is not under our influence, 12 billion miles away." Voyager 1 was launched with recorded greetings and music from Earth as well as a "roadmap" back to our planet, which Hix joked could be either good or bad. "If the aliens are nice and they want more Chuck Berry, that's okay. But, Lordy, if they want to eat us, we gave them the roadmap to get here!"

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft crossed the orbit of Pluto in 1990 NASA turned its cameras toward Earth at the request of scientist Carl Sagan to take the now-iconic picture of the planet ("The Pale Blue Dot") caught in a sunbeam. The photo, shown during the slideshow, is the only one of its kind; no other spacecraft has departed the solar system with a functional camera.

Regarding Pluto, Hix had seemingly good news for those in attendance: the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had weeks earlier voted to reinstate Pluto as a planet. Unfortunately, the Harvard vote does not make the news official, as it falls to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to classify heavenly bodies.

So far, the IAU has not added the issue to its August 2015 agenda.

Once the skies were dark and the stars shone, Hix pulled out an impressive laser pointer that called to mind a Star Wars light saber; its long, blue beam able to exactly pinpoint stars in the night sky. With it, Hix guided viewers through the constellations in the night sky and the mythology behind their naming.

Pointing to Arcturus, a blinking star low in the night sky, Hix told the crowd that "there are ghosts all around us." Arcturus blinks, he said, because it is low in the atmosphere, where its light is bent. But more importantly, he said, the star might not actually be there at all.

"Believe it or not, some of the stars you are seeing right now are dead. They do not exist. They are ghosts. There's a good chance that Arcturus is not there. It blew up. But its light takes 900 years to get to us. Many of the stars don't exist above your head. This is a candidate for a star that is no longer in existence."

The evening of astronomical education was presented free of charge as a part of the Motlow STEM outreach program.

"This is what our STEM outreach does," said Hix. "We do STEM camps during the summer, targeting 6th through 8th grade, and we spend one day at the Space and Rocket Center. And we're very fortunate to have a portable planetarium. As far as I know, in the United States, we are the only people that will go do a planetary program for free."

In fact, since the planetarium was added to the program less than three years ago, it has traveled more than 7,000 miles, making 71 visits to area school systems in the last year alone.

"I wouldn't be able to do these things at all if it wasn't for the members of the Motlow Foundation," said Hix. "Dr. MaryLou Apple is the first president I've worked with in more than three decades of education that would support outreach such as this and not worry about the return on the dollar."

"Next year, if things work out well, we're adding robotics to our outreach."

Stressing the importance of STEM, Hix pointed out that last year nearly 20 percent of all college students in China studied in a STEM field while merely 4 percent of U.S. students did.

"When we do outreach such as this, we really hope to plant some seeds. I wanted somebody to do this so badly when I was growing up and that never happened," said Hix. "The next generation is going to have a tough time. I want them to see how cool science really is."

Hix ended the evening with a wish for those in attendance. "I hope you'll be like those stars that continue to shine long after they are gone."