Astronomy Day in the Rocket City

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.01.28 PM.pngOur thanks to Dr. Naveen Vetcha for this week’s guest article, letting us know about what went down at the recent Astronomy Day!

Dr. Vetcha is a Propulsion Analyst at ERC Inc. supporting the Jacobs ESSSA Contract at NASA Marshall. He is an amateur astronomer and volunteer educator at Von Braun Astronomical Society.


The Von Braun Astronomical Society (VBAS) located in Huntsville, AL was originally founded in 1954 as the Rocket City Astronomical Association (RCAA) through the efforts of a group of high-school students interested in Astronomy led by Sammy Pruitt.  With the help and influence of Dr. Wernher Von Braun, for whom the Society was later renamed, the Society is still active 60 years after its inception. The VBAS organizes and presents planetarium shows, STEM activities, and astronomy outreach events in the Tennessee valley area.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.00.59 PM.pngOn October 22nd, VBAS celebrated Astronomy Day at the Society’s facilities located in Monte Sano State Park. The theme was “Bringing Astronomy to the People.” Event planning started in the spring of 2016.  The planning committee used tips from Astroleague’s free Astronomy Day Handbook for planning and execution, which resulted in a very successful event with more than 350 attendees. Lockheed Martin sponsored the event. In addition, Chick-fil-A provided free kids meal coupons to support the event.

VBAS used various means of communication to publicize the event throughout the Tennessee valley. Event information was circulated both through social media (VBAS website, Facebook, local blogs), public radio Public Service Announcements, local event calendars, and printed flyers. For the first time, VBAS also advertised the event on billboards. As VBAS is a promoter of dark-sky-friendly lighting, we worked with the designer to choose the ‘right’ colors to minimize light pollution.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.02.05 PM.pngVBAS wanted to present an opportunity for kids and adults not only to look through the telescopes, but also to learn about various aerospace technologies to spark an interest in Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics (STEAM). We invited various local similar-minded societies, museums, and organizations to participate in the event and to exhibit. As a result, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the Huntsville Alabama L5 society (HAL5, local chapter of National Space Society), US Space & Rocket Center (USSRC), Lockheed Martin and NASA/Marshal Space Flight Center joined the event with booths and exhibits.

Astronomy Day included both daytime and nighttime activities. Daytime activities kicked off at 1 pm. VBAS astronomers invited the attendees to look at sunspots and solar prominences through a variety of solar telescopes. A short and simple description of sunspots and solar prominences was provided by the astronomers while people were looking through the telescopes.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.03.38 PM.pngAIAA provided an opportunity for the kids to assemble paper gliders and learn about the four forces of flight. HAL5 volunteers helped kids to prepare paper rockets and launch them using compressed air launcher. HAL5 also provided the opportunity for kids to learn how a rocket engine works by demonstrating the principles using a suitcase rocket that was fired periodically throughout the day. Kids also learned about International Space Station (ISS) by assembling model parts of ISS.

USSRC volunteers organized the science activity “scaling the solar system” where participants had to measure the distances between the inflatable Sun and Planets arranged in the observing field. Attendees also experienced the Extra Vehicular Activity on Mars using 3D Virtual Reality glasses provided by Lockheed Martin. NASA provided the moon rock and a lava rock which helped attendees in learning the geological differences between the Moon and the Earth. NASA also provided various giveaways in the form of posters, stickers, lithos, and bookmarks that contain information about various NASA missions. An astronomy van that has a mobile multimedia-astronomy exhibit also kept a lot of participants occupied. Attendees also learned about comets through a dry-ice comet demonstration. Kids enthusiastically participated in this activity by putting on their lab gloves & safety glasses and pouring the dirt, pebbles, and ice cream (yummy) into the mixing bowl.

While the outdoor activities kept the attendees busy, there were planetarium shows offered every hour, which attracted attendees who wanted a break from the outdoor events.  Participants of the planetarium shows learned about the history of space flight, 2017 solar eclipse, and how to buy a first telescope. Every planetarium talk included a tour of the night sky projected on the planetarium dome through VBAS’s A3P projector.

VBAS gave away door prizes that included astronomy-related paraphernalia. The grand prize was a 3.5 -inch desktop telescope. Kids were encouraged to color an astronomy picture to be eligible for this grand prize. A ten year old female astronomy enthusiast won this grand prize which was announced towards the end of the daytime activities.

As the sun set, the daytime activities concluded at 5 pm. Nighttime activities kicked off with a telescope workshop in which VBAS astronomers taught people how to set up a telescope. Attendees were encouraged to bring their own telescopes so that they could learn everything about their scopes and get the maximum benefit out of the workshop.  VBAS stellar instructors (trained high-school and middle-school interns) gave tours of the Swanson observatory which houses the 21” telescope. They also gave tours of the night sky by pointing out several constellations and sharing stories associated with those constellations.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.02.51 PM.pngAstronomy Day attendees who stayed into the evening, had a chance to listen to the VBAS’ special guest, Robert L. “Hoot” Gibson, a former NASA Astronaut. Hoot shared his space-flight experiences and kept children and adults entertained with his charming style of storytelling.  He encouraged the students in the audience to pursue their education in a STEAM field and emphasized the important role astronomy played in the successful completion of his missions.

Several telescopes were set up in the observing field showing various deep-sky objects. Visitors got to see globular clusters, double stars, galaxies, and nebulae. The darkness of the night was filled with expressions like “wow”, “amazing”, “beautiful,” etc. from the public who were viewing these objects through the eyepieces, perhaps for the first time. The enthusiasm of the public gave the VBAS volunteers the extra energy to keep going after a long day.

In addition to viewing; the VBAS Imaging Team conducted a real time astrophotography demonstration.  Our team explained each piece of hardware, its purpose and how it is used.  Using an 11″ Schmidt-Cassegrain optical tube mounted on a German Equatorial mount, the team demonstrated how to set up, polar align and slew the telescope to various deep sky objects for photography.  While one team member operated the telescope, other team members explained to the crowd how what actions the operator was taking to obtain the images. Using software products available to amateur astronomers today, the VBAS imaging team explained the intricacies of telescope and camera control.  With the equipment and software in place, the team took real time photos of the Hercules Globular Cluster (M13) and Andromeda Galaxy (M31).  Visitors were quite amazed during the demonstration and asked several engaging questions.

The Von Braun Astronomical Society organized an amazing Astronomy Day, during which participants experienced the beauty of the universe and an opportunity to understand it using Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.    

VBAS hosts public planetarium shows every Saturday night. To learn more please check our website or join our public Facebook group.

Many thanks to Don Reed and Mitzi Adams for their valuable contributions to this article.

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