Astronomy Club Lets Students Share Their Passion for the Stars

April 8, 2024

This week, 50 students from Georgia Tech’s Astronomy Club will travel to Missouri to view the solar eclipse on April 8. Georgia isn’t in the path of totality — which occurs when the moon fully covers the sun — but Missouri is, and club members want to be there to experience the rare celestial event. While viewing the eclipse is the organization’s biggest adventure of the year, it is just one of many events the club hosts every month. The group is a place for hobbyist astronomers and physics students to connect over their love of the solar system and the mysteries within it.

Every Monday, the club hosts meetings at which a topic of astronomical interest — such as black holes or stellar evolution — is presented; attendees then visit the Georgia Tech Observatory to see what the sky has in the store for them that night.

“I am completing the astrophysics concentration for my studies, so I can apply what I learn in class to the club and explain to people what they’re actually looking at,” said Ethan Atkinson, club president and a fourth-year physics major. They also take monthly field trips to the observatory at Fernbank Museum for a different view of the sky and the chance to use older telescopes.

Once a month, weather permitting, the Astronomy Club invites everyone to join in on the fun with Public Nights at the Georgia Tech Observatory. Club members place telescopes outside the Howey Physics Building, where anyone take a look through the lens at whichever planet is in focus that evening. The events are popular, not just across campus but also Atlanta. Most nights, almost 350 people attend.

The club’s signature annual event for members is usually a field trip to dedicated dark sky area Deerlick Astronomy Village in Sharon, Georgia, to see constellations unadulterated by light pollution and capture them via astrophotography. “The main attraction for most people is seeing the Milky Way and counting shooting stars,” Atkinson said. While this year’s field trip is to Missouri for the eclipse, they are still bringing the cameras along.

The club wasn’t always this popular on campus. Even though the organization started in 2007 when Tech built the observatory, membership had dropped to only 20 members by 2021. Covid-19 made hosting a lot of people in a small observatory challenging, so faculty advisor James Sowell recommended they move the telescopes outside, increasing the number of people who could attend and the interest in studying physics. “Sometimes students take my classes because the club let them know about my courses,” Sowell said.

Atkinson has also worked to make the club more accessible to every major and interest level. Computational media student Victoria Nguyen was one of those students. Although she has loved astronomy since childhood, it was just a hobby until she found the club in her first year. “The community is really great and relaxed,” said Nguyen, who is incoming president of the club. “We’ve created a safe environment to learn about space, and you don’t even need to have your own telescope.”

Although solar eclipses don’t happen annually, the Astronomy Club is stronger and bigger than ever. Whether someone gazes at the stars nightly or has never even looked through a telescope, the club is open to the campus community — so everyone can better understand what lies beyond our planet.

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Tess Malone, Senior Research Writer/Editor