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Out Of Sight

'Star Parties' Bring Heavens A Little Closer To Earth

Printed with permission of the Daily News-Record

Posted: January 26, 2012
By Joshua Brown

Students work with a 10=inch telescope at the astronomy park.
Perry Miller (right), Caitlin McDermott (far left) and Jami Dodenhoff watch as senior Chris Wolfe affixes a sight to the top of a Meade 10-inch telescope as students train to volunteer for James Madison University's "Star Days." The event, to take place at Astronomy Park, will allow stargazers to see the universe through one of the university's high-powered telescopes. (Photos by Justin Falls / DN-R)

Wolfe checks to make sure the sights line up.

HARRISONBURG — Area stargazers will be able to get a better look at the celestial scenery beginning Friday at James Madison University, thanks to free "star parties" being organized at the school.

The Physics and Astronomy Department will hold monthly stargazing nights beginning Jan. 27. During the course of the semester, observers will be able to see four planets in detail through the university's high-powered telescopes.

The parties are scheduled for the last Friday or Saturday of each month through April. Viewing stations will be available beginning at 7 p.m. on Jan. 27 and Feb. 25, and at 8 p.m. on Mar. 30 and April 27.

Shanil Virani, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, decided to hold the event monthly because a past star gazing event brought hundreds of amateur astronomers, creating long lines and short viewing times, he said.

"In the past, it was on kind of a random, ad hoc basis," said Virani. "If something exciting was happening in the astronomical world, it would be organized then. To have monthly star parties right now is driven by the fact that the one event we had while I was new here drew a very large crowd."

Binaries, Rings
You might have noticed a few particularly bright luminaries in the sky as the planets cycle through their orbits. But, the university's telescopes will reveal much more detail than can be seen by the naked eye.

Jupiter will be visible on the January and February dates, while Mars and Saturn will be visible during March and April, Virani said.

Venus, the moon and several "binary stars" — stars that appear as one to the naked eye, but resolve themselves into two separate blazes under the scrutiny of a telescope — will be visible each of the four nights.

"To be able to see Saturn with its majestic rings is really a special thing to see," Virani said. "[Viewers] also will see the four moons of Jupiter that Galileo saw hundreds of years ago."

The event will be held in JMU's Astronomy Park, just outside the physics and chemistry building on the East Campus. Parking can be found in lot D2, located across the street from the building.

"This, for me, is just absolutely exciting," senior Jami Dodenhoff said. An elementary education major and member of the astronomy club, Dodenhoff is volunteering with the star parties. "Being in the planetarium has given us a chance to explore the night sky, but this is a chance to see it as it is."

Junior Caitlin McDermott echoed Dodenhoff's excitement.

"I think this is cool to have this opportunity because not a lot of people have a [high-quality] telescope," said McDermott, also an elementary education major.

If weather conditions prevent easy viewing, the events will be pushed back to the following day at the same time, Virani said. He will post information about cancellations by 4 p.m. the night of the showing at www.jmu.edu/planetarium.

In addition, solar viewings are scheduled for 10 a.m.-noon the last Saturday of the month from January through April at the Harrisonburg Farmer's Market. During those events, the public will be able to observe the sun through a solar telescope and create their own asteroids using ice cream, Virani said.

For more information about the solar observation, contact Anca Constantin at constaax@jmu.edu or 568-5630.

Contact Joshua Brown at 574-6218 or jbrown@dnronline.com.