Observatory Nights Give Students, Community Hands-On Lessons in Astronomy

by Diane VanDyke

Maybe it’s the intrigue of the unknown, the ability to catch a glimpse of another world or the possibility of traveling into outer space, but astronomy captures the interest of people of all ages, from scouts to seniors.

Throughout the year, Montgomery County Community College hosts free observatory nights for the community to view the celestial bodies in the sky using the 16-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain, research-quality telescope in the observatory or one of the 10-inch telescopes poised on the observation deck of the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) at the College’s Central Campus.

This spring, Observatory Nights will be held on Feb. 20 from 7-9 p.m., March 19 from 8-10 p.m. and April 23 from 8:30-10:30 p.m. The evenings are free of charge and are open to the public. Astronomy clubs are welcome. For more information, call 215-641-6460 or visit www.mc3.edu/observatory.

During these evenings, people not only get to see outer space up close, but they also get learn the latest astronomy news from Physics Assistant Professor Kelli Spangler. While fielding questions, she explains topics like the characteristics of the moon’s craters, the possibility of living on another planet and the impact of living without gravity.

Spangler, who has a bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics from Colgate University and a master’s degree from Drexel University, teaches Introduction to Astronomy at the College.

To keep things running smoothly, several students volunteer to set up and focus the smaller telescopes. Last semester, three of those students were Earl McCard of Bridgeport, an engineering science/math major; Nikki Reichert of Collegeville, a biology science major; and Michael Hilliard of Horsham, a finance major.

Spangler greatly appreciates the support from her students during these events.

“Their help allows me to create viewing stations,” she said. “In addition to looking through the Meade telescope, visitors can go out on the deck and look through several telescopes the students set up to see different things, such as Jupiter with its moons, or a star nebula.”

The students adjust the telescopes for people’s different vision needs and keep the objects in clear view as the earth rotates. Using their newly learned astronomy knowledge, they can direct viewers to the correct areas in the sky to observe planets or certain constellations.

“This is a great learning experience,” McCard said, about helping the visitors and spending the additional time studying and learning more about outer space.

During one evening, the program’s focus was on the full moon, since its radiance that evening overpowered the sky and the ability to see almost anything else. However, near the end of the two-hour observation time, viewers were able to catch a glimpse of Jupiter, its rings and two of its moons.

“What I enjoy most about astronomy is learning all the things that I didn’t know before,” Hilliard said. “One of the most interesting things I learned so far is that the moon moves four centimeters away from Earth each year. I can only imagine how big it must have looked a million years ago.”

Like all sciences, astronomy enriches people’s understanding of the environment and their roles in it.

“In my opinion, the major benefit one gets from my course, independent of his/her major, is a new concept of perspective,” Spangler said. “I have had many students tell me that they walked away from my course more aware of the world and nature around them in a way they never were before.  I hope it encourages them to be stewards of the planet as they come to appreciate how wonderfully diverse and original the earth truly is.  I know it certainly has done that for me.”

Once a month, Spangler hosts a “Troop Monday” for 20 boy or girls scouts and their parents. During three 45-minute sessions, they observe the moon conditions, planets and other objects, as they work on their astronomy badges.

“I get some of the best questions from them and thoroughly enjoy hearing astronomy from the perspective of an eight year old,” she said.

Physics Assistant Professor Kelli Spangler leads community members in looking at the night sky during a fall semester Observatory night. Photo by Norman Detweiler

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