Upcoming solar eclipse inspires astronomy viewing night

Professor Chris Sorenson prepares the telescope for the astronomy viewing at the Flint Hills Discovery Center on July 14, 2017. (Nicholas Cady | The Collegian)

The Flint Hills Discovery Center, in collaboration with the department of physics at Kansas State University, hosted an astronomy viewing July 14. The event was free to the public and focused on educating attendees about the night sky.

The event allowed local residents to view the moon, planets and stars through 8-inch reflecting telescopes and 4-inch refracting telescopes. The major planets the attendees viewed included Jupiter and Saturn.

“This is making science real, and people are actually able to experience it,” Jonathan Mertz, event supervisor at Flint Hills Discovery Center, said. “It’s not something in a book; it’s not something in a big city. It’s something here in Manhattan where people can come together and experience science and something really great that’s going to be happening.”

Stephen Bridenstine, curator of education at Flint Hills Discovery Center, said the event was inspired by the upcoming solar eclipse occurring Aug. 21.

“I think one of the most important things it does is it gets people excited about science,” Bridenstine said. “It’s a free program. There’s no cost to come and experience this tonight. It’s a way that we can fulfill our mission of serving the Manhattan community and providing some great opportunities to experience the natural world around them, including the night sky.”

The astronomy viewing was led by Chris Sorensen, distinguished professor of physics at K-State and local astronomy enthusiast.

“What you hope is some of these kids will realize there are things they can’t see normally,” Sorensen said. “If they take special effort, there’s a lot of hidden secrets in the universe, and they’re pretty neat and beautiful.”

The astronomy viewing provided a unique learning experience for those in attendance.

“We’re strong advocates for what we call informal education,” Bridenstine said. “That means grabbing a telescope and looking at the night skies, hiking through the prairie and looking at the rocks and the flowers. It’s learning out in the world around you. Not all learning happens in the classroom.”

Sorensen used his personal, handmade telescope for the event. He said he began building the telescope when he was about 12 years old but was forced to stop after being unable to grind some of the parts into shape. Sorensen said he resumed the project when he was about 14 or 15 years old, and the telescope took less than a year to finish after that.

“It was a very difficult thing to do,” Sorensen said. “I had to read books on how to do it. I probably learned tenacity building that telescope, and that’s done me well throughout my career.”

The event was educational for people of all ages, especially newcomers to astronomical observation.

“It’s family-friendly. It brings out a lot of people who have never been here before,” Bridenstine said.

Sorensen said he was pleased to see so many people in attendance.

“It’s heartening to see that,” Sorensen said. “You realize there’s a lot of people who want to broaden themselves up in all kinds of ways. It’s good to see—we have a viable community.”

The event demonstrated the effectiveness of local educational outreach, especially for younger audiences.

“You know what’s great about this event? Anyone can be a scientist,” Bridenstine said. “I think Chris Sorensen is a great example of why and how at a young age you can become interested in something, and you can make it your career or you can keep it a hobby.”