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NMSU fosters interest in astronomy through monthly open houses

When the sun sets, the action starts.



Sean Lindsay, a graduate fellow in the New Mexico State University Department of Astronomy, takes a look at a star cluster through one of the telescopes at the Clyde W. Tombaugh Campus Observatory at a recent open house. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

Though the night sky appears to be calm and gentle when viewed by the naked eye, through the lens of a telescope, it reveals its true nature of twists and turns going back millions of years.

In order to present a closer look at the secrets the night sky holds, New Mexico State University's Department of Astronomy hosts free monthly open houses at the Clyde W. Tombaugh Campus Observatory, located on the Las Cruces campus.

"We live in a great area for astronomical interest," said Jim Murphy, department head. "There are lots of beautiful and interesting objects to behold in the night sky, appreciate the physical processes that make them be present where they are, have the characteristics they have, and think about what their evolution over time might be."

At the open houses, the community is encouraged to look at astronomical objects, ask questions of astronomers and graduate students, and mingle with fellow stargazers.

"One of the primary reasons we do this is to help inspire people about the skies," said Bernie McNamara, a professor of astronomy. "A lot of the astronomers who work here - the graduate students as well as the faculty - got their beginnings as amateur astronomers. We're upholding a long tradition of professional astronomers sharing their enthusiasm for the sky with people who have an interest."

One popular astronomical object always viewed at the open houses is the moon in its various phases. The community can also view star clusters, double stars, planets - and possibly even a galaxy or two. As the seasons change, different celestial objects come into view. Astronomers at NMSU might also gear topics of interest at an open house to coincide with a timely astronomical event.

Murphy said some of the telescope eyepieces are high and can be difficult to reach, but they are prepared to accommodate the public in any way they can so that any interested person can take a peek at the celestial objects.

"We love having kids come out - along with their parents or siblings. No age is too old or too young," he said.

Starting time for the event depends on the season - the open houses start when it gets dark. Participants are invited to come and go as they wish. NMSU astronomers and graduate students are eager to stay at the observatory as long as needed to answer everyone's questions.

"We cordially invite the community every time we have an open house to come and take advantage of the opportunity," McNamara said. "These are really meant for the community. It's a public outreach effort with the Department of Astronomy on behalf of the university."

For information and a schedule of open houses, contact the Department of Astronomy at 575-646-4438 or visit http://astronomy.nmsu.edu/dept/html/facade.html.