Have you ever stared into the vast night sky and gotten lost in thoughts, grappling with concepts about our place in the universe, or if we are alone? There is an opportunity at FRCC-Westminster to quench that curiosity in Astronomy Club.
“Throughout human existence we have always looked up,” said Anthony James, student organizer of Astronomy Club. The club meets on Thursdays at 11 a.m. in the Student Outreach Center and is open to any curious students. “If you just like staring at space, come stop by,” he said.
A couple of times each semester, the Club uses the telescope on the east end of campus for solar or night sky observing. This affords students the opportunity to gaze up at the night sky using the power of optics to get a closer look. The experience of using the telescope brings reality to the group’s discussions, as they can look at some of the objects they are talking about.
“I like seeing the planets,” James said. “I like seeing Saturn and Jupiter. It’s fun looking at those because they are so far away. They’re these gas giants, these huge planets, but you can see them through a telescope. It’s just super cool to see and when you first see Jupiter, and you see the moons around Jupiter- you’re kind of like ‘Wow.’ We have these huge telescopes, and Galileo and other early astronomers just made their own telescopes, and they were seeing almost the exact same thing. It’s kind of a cool experience.”
Experiential learning also sets Astronomy Club apart from run-of-the-mill organizations. “We try to do [community service] projects,” James said. Last semester, the Club donated a telescope to Anythink Library. “This semester, they plan to create a rail gun that can move objects with electromagnetic force.
I was able to watch the Club in action during a meeting, as they worked on the rail-gun project. The meeting included Dr. Lindsay Rocks, an astronomy and physics professor and the faculty advisor to the Club. She set the project up, explained to us the physics behind what was taking place, answered questions and talked science and astronomy with us.
When they aren’t tinkering with an experiment or project, the Club discusses science and space. “Arguing about how many dimensions there are, a lot of random stuff. We pretty much just talk about science,” James said. To participate, you can talk to Dr. Rocks or James, or you can simply attend a meeting. “Anybody is welcome,” James said. “We don’t do math in there, so don’t let that discourage you!”
According to James, the night sky puts life and our existence into perspective. “We are only able to see what’s in front of us, and when you can stare at something that’s millions, or billions, of years old it kind of puts a different view-point on life and our place in the universe,” he said. “You can kind of understand where we came from and what’s going on. It’s kind of a humbling experience to look up and to realize that we’re here and there is so much out there and we are just flying through space.”
There are reasons that space is important that are much closer to home, not only on our planet but also in the Front Range. Space is big business in Colorado. According to the Colorado Space Coalition, Colorado has the nation’s second largest aerospace industry, with over 160,000 employed across over 400 companies, including eight of the nation’s top aerospace contractors.
“I think a lot of people take it for granted that a lot of technology comes from just studying the stars and space,” James said. James is starting his studies at FRCC and plans to transfer to CU-Boulder to continue his education. In addition to a booming aerospace industry, Colorado is also home to schools with superior aerospace programs.
“CU-Boulder has a great astrophysics and planetary sciences program. The New Horizons Project heavily used CU-Boulder to send [the mission and craft] to Pluto. Whether it’s making telescopes, or airplanes or space shuttle parts, telescope lenses, there is a lot around Colorado. There is a huge (space) community here in Colorado,” James said.
We are also fortunate to live in Colorado because, away from the Front Range, there are still dark skies that allow better star viewing, as well as a thinner atmosphere which allows for crisper telescope sightings. One of the biggest threats to the night sky is called light pollution, which means that the light created by cities and society pollutes the night sky and detracts from our ability to view the astronomical bodies. This is why only a few stars are visible in downtown Denver verses a few thousand in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. In fact, Colorado is a leader in preserving this resource that is quickly vanishing.
“I know that light pollution is an issue and it’s getting harder and harder for us to use ground telescopes because of the light pollution. I think we should all take a moment to look up and just kind of realize that there is something up there,” James said, referring to what is called the Night Sky Initiative, which is an international, 501(c)-3 non-profit organization devoted to protecting the night sky for present and future generations. The organization advocates for the creation of night sky parks, places set aside for the enjoyment of the people to see the night sky, and recognizing communities that currently exist with a healthy night sky view, called International Dark Sky Communities.
Colorado has two such places: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Wet Mountain Valley and town of Westcliffe, have both received this designation and puts them among the few locations in the US that have been acknowledged for their views of the night sky. In fact, Westcliffe is one of only 14 communities in the world that has received the designation of Dark Sky Community, places that have put an emphasis on preserving the night sky.
If you are interested in the night sky, Colorado is a fantastic place to live. We have great views of space, highly-regarded institutions for the study of space and a healthy aerospace economy. You journey to space could begin Thursdays at 11 a.m. with Astronomy Club!
Written by Alex Liethen
Photo by Alex Liethen