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Despite cloudy skies, students learn about the stars at Astrofest

“What’s the difference between a dwarf star and a star?” shouted one little boy, who promptly followed his question by sprinting laps around a fountain.

“My sister wants to be the first on Mars,” shared a Girl Scout, whose sister hid as her cheeks blushed bright red.

“What’s the smallest planet?” asked another scout, as she hovered over a chalk drawing of Jupiter.

With an emphasis on community outreach, this year’s Astrofest had dozens flocking to the Earth and Space Sciences building Thursday night, despite the cancelation of the event’s main attraction a chance to survey space through Betsy, a 14” telescope  due to cloudiness.  

Astrofest, now in its sixth year, is an annual event run by Stony Brook’s Astronomy Club. At the event, students and members of the nearby community are invited to learn about space.

The club’s main objective is to promote scientific literacy by offering a welcoming environment to those without a STEM background so they are able to explore and admire science’s marvels, according to president Tyler Cohen, a senior astronomy and physics major.

Cohen, who spent his high school years peering at the night sky through the lens of his first telescope, hopes to spark the same interest of astronomy in others.

“To appreciate science and be able to use the results and apply it to your life to make informed decisions, you don’t need an advanced math background,” he said. “I think that’s the reason why we have the flat-Earthers and climate change deniers: because the scientific community has been too closed and we need to open it up and make it more welcoming to the common person.”

This sentiment is reflected in the Astronomy Club’s influx of non-astronomy major members.

“Some people have said to me, ‘Oh, the [astronomy] club is diluting’, but I don’t see it that way,” Cohen said. “A biologist is going to have a different perspective on say, the discovery of water on mars, than a physicist is going to.”

The event featured a hallway of poster boards, lectures and demonstrations on topics that ranged from comets, to supernovas, to the Voyager expeditions. Members of the Astronomy Club presented either existing research, or their own personal work.

From there, participants were welcomed on a solar system tour of planetary chalk drawing.

“If you scaled to this tennis ball, Mercury would be about the size of a dust mite,” Astronomy Club Treasurer Tim Sarro explained to students, children and community members huddled around him.

Afterwards, participants were invited to a showing of Carl Sagan’s series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” and given plastic light-sabers.

Although disappointed by the cloudy weather and the absence of Betsy, many still had high praise for Astrofest, which boasted a 150 person attendance.

“We really wanted to see that,” freshman physics major Edwin Ramilo said. “But I thought [Astrofest] was cool. I like the tour and learned a lot of stuff about our solar system that I didn’t know.”

And for those still interested in using the campus observatory, which is located on the roof of the Earth and Spaces Sciences building, the Astronomy Department holds monthly open nights where members of the community are welcome to learn how to use Betsy. The Astronomy Club also holds weekly meetings, all of which are followed by a viewing session, weather permitting.

This Monday, the Astronomy Club will be providing telescopes and solar filters in front of the SAC for students to view the transit of Mercury, a daytime celestial rarity where Mercury passes in front of the sun.

Correction: May 8, 2016

A previous version of this story erroneously reported that Tim Sarro was the vice president of the Astronomy Club. He is the treasurer.

FEATURE IMAGE CREDIT: NASA/JPL

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