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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU bringing astronomy to the masses

With a full lunar eclipse on the horizon, the astronomy department at New Mexico State University will have the opportunity to share their knowledge and educate people unfamiliar with the study of space.

This is nothing new for the department, which provided more than 280 hours of community service and public events during the Fall 2007 semester alone.

Graduate students give lectures and presentations at elementary, middle and high schools throughout the area, including MacArthur Elementary School, White Sands Elementary School and Gadsden Middle School.

"The graduate student talking to a class will generally talk about their specialty or research track and tailor it to the level of the class," said Ryan Hamilton, vice president of the astronomy graduate student organization.

Hamilton says for first- through fourth-grade classes the focus is on the different types, temperatures and sizes of stars and how the universe is organized. Grades 5-8 learn about the origins of the universe and how telescopes, computers and other tools are used to understand how structures such as galaxies and our solar system are formed. High school students are given the finer points of the topics discussed with younger students. Stars, galaxies or planets, for example, are explained in much greater detail.

The group is also in the process of setting up a long-term tutoring program with Mayfield High School and the Science Education Alliance (SEA) Science Advisor Program.

A testament to the lasting nature of their outreach work, the department, with the sponsorship of the Las Cruces Museum of Natural History and the city of Las Cruces, has hosted "Sky Safari," a monthly program of night-sky viewing and telescope observations for many years. Hamilton couldn't be sure how long the program has been held but said it was "at least five years, though probably almost a decade." Graduate students bring telescopes, binoculars and laser pointers to either La Llorona Park or Leasburg Dam Park for the event.

"Looking at the night sky when I was growing up encouraged me to follow a career in the sciences," Hamilton said. "Going to science-themed talks and having scientists come to my school and talk about what they do sealed the deal."

The department also is involved with the growing spaceflight industry, supplying telescopes for the viewing of the first successful launch from Spaceport America and participating in the X-Prize Cup Education Day at Holloman Air Force Base. Thousands of students from across New Mexico and Texas as well as exhibitors and contestants in the X-Prize Lunar Lander Challenge attended the event. The astronomy department provided solar viewing telescopes and the unique opportunity to observe the planet Venus during the daytime.

The department holds events on the NMSU campus as well, inviting anyone who is interested to visit monthly open houses at the Tombaugh Observatory. The department provides a faculty member to give a presentation on a favorite subject and a couple of graduate students to assist visitors at the open houses.

The next on-campus event will be the total lunar eclipse open house on Wednesday, Feb. 20. Hamilton says Las Crucens will have a particularly good vantage point to view the eclipse.

"The eclipse runs from about 6 to 11 p.m.," Hamilton said. "By 8 p.m. the moon will be fully in the Earth's shadow and hopefully turn a beautiful red color. The next good total lunar eclipse visible for us will be in 2010."

With prospects such as increased participation in Spaceport America and the X-Prize Cup as well as improvements to the Sky Safari program, Hamilton is hopeful for the future of astronomy in the area.

"We have an astronomy department that is committed to maintaining ties to the community and opportunities to observe skies that are darker than any metropolitan part of the country," Hamilton said.