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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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A&M provides a window into the cosmos

Photo by By Savannah Mehrtens

A young member of the B-CS community looks into a telescope provided by the Mitchell Institute in the Back Yard of the Stella Hotel

On July 26, Texas A&M students and residents of Bryan-College Station looked to the stars when The Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy hosted its latest on-campus star party.
The Astronomical Instrumentation Lab in A&M’s physics department hosts regular star parties to share their craft with the public. Physics professor Jennifer Marshall and her research assistants set up their telescopes and allow attendees to view the moon, planets and even nearby galaxies.
“This is the first time we’ve done it during the summer, and we have found out that it’s even more fun during the summer because we get families coming out,” Marshall said.
Physics junior Liam Plybon said that his favorite part of working at the star parties is helping people experience their first view through a telescope.
“Most people never get the experience of looking at Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn. They don’t get to see the craters of the moon they way that we do,” Plybon said.
Plybon said that the star parties teach attendees several skills, but his favorite thing to teach is proper telescope use.
“It’s one thing to look in a telescope and see Jupiter and its moons, but I think people learn a lot more when they actually learn to point a telescope,” Plybon said.
Marshall and her research assistants have hosted star parties on campus at A&M for the past six years. Marshall said they are typically attended by students taking astronomy classes who can earn extra credit from their professors for attending.
“I’m particularly interested in talking to young women and minority students, first generation students,” Marshall said. “This is a good way to reach those kinds of students.”
Marshall said that students have come to star parties in the past hoping to get some extra credit, but instead became interested in her lab, some even changing their majors.
“They’ll start talking to me, and I’ll say, ‘You like doing engineering? Why don’t you come be an engineer in my lab? We build telescopes.’ And then we make that connection,” Marshall said.
Physics sophomore John Maner was one such student who learned about the Mitchell Institute and Marshall’s lab by attending a star party himself.
“I wasn’t originally a physics major. I may be more of an extreme case, but more generally it gets people interested in astronomy,” Maner said. “To be able to talk about some of the research that’s being done in the field right now and to get people interested, this is the best place you could possibly do it.”
This summer, the lab began hosting some of their parties at the Stella Hotel, most recently on July 28. The event hosted hundreds of community members and hotel guests and was staffed by both paid and volunteer researchers in the physics department.
“I think like with any job, when you’re in the thick of it, you’re getting frustrated every day because your code’s crashing, you’re stuck in the office, you lose track sometimes of why you started doing it in the first place,” third year graduate student Peter Chi, who volunteered to work the Stella Hotel Star Party, said. “I love doing these kinds of things because the enthusiasm is infectious. It reminds me why I’m doing astronomy.”
Sixteen year-old Mitchell Barry, a junior at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Bryan, attended the Stella Hotel Star Party. His father, David Barry said that after asking permission, they set up Mitchell’s own telescope in the Stella’s Back Yard.
David Barry’s three elder children have all attended A&M, and said that Mitchell is considering pursuing astronomy and physics at A&M himself.
“I want to study astronomy as well as music and a lot of other things,” Mitchell Barry said. “The professor’s out here so I thought what the heck, I might meet her and learn about some applications for astronomy. I might major in it.”
Chi said that the importance of these types of community outreach events was not lost on him.
“Astronomy is like the gateway drug to science,” Chi said. “It’s good in general for a growing interest in science and the world around you.”

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