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Students see stars at AFA observatory
Cadet 3rd Class Trey Cottingham uses a green laser to point out stars and constellations in the early autumn sky to Falcon Middle School students visiting the Air Force Academy observatory Sept. 24, 2010. Students also toured Department of Physics classrooms and learned about the 61-cm telescope used to conduct astronomy research at the Academy. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)
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Students see stars at AFA observatory

Posted 9/29/2010   Updated 9/29/2010 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

9/29/2010 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Roughly 50 students from Falcon Middle School in Colorado Springs visited the Air Force Academy's observatory the evening of Sept. 24 to see a few famous stars.

The summer triangle stars Deneb, Vega and Altair were on display, along with the bright bluish stars in the big dipper and, most famously, the north star, Polaris.

A cadet tour guide used a green laser to point out stars, constellations and asterisms: patterns of stars like the Big Dipper and Little Dipper that aren't actual constellations. He pointed out Ophiuchus, the snake handler, and Serpens, the snake. Inside, Dr. Devin Della-Rose and Cadet 1st Class Samantha Howard talked about objects viewable only through telescopes while a monitor on the background displayed an image of the Whirlpool Galaxy approximately 23 million light-years away.

Seventh-grade Earth science teacher Monica Sackuvich contacted Dr. Della-Rose, an associate professor with the Department of Physics, to request a tour of the observatory for her class. Dr. Della-Rose scheduled a tour for an evening when cadets did not have military training scheduled.

"Without the cadets' leadership, these tours don't happen," Dr. Della-Rose said. As the cadet in charge of the Academy's astronomy club, Cadet Howard made sure cadets were in place to facilitate every step of the tour.

The observatory houses a 61-cm reflecting telescope originally built in 1964 to help NASA survey potential moon landing sites. The telescope never actually took part in the search; instead, the Air Force bought it in 1965 and moved it from Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., to the Academy in 1977. The observatory was built to house the telescope in 1979.

When middle school students aren't peering into the large reflecting mirror at the base of the telescope, cadets and faculty use it to conduct astronomy research. Dr. Della-Rose said researchers here have observed exoplanetary transits: events where a planet orbiting another star moves between that star and Earth. By 2011, he predicts cadets will have a chance to discover new exoplanets.

For that to happen, students have to develop an interest for astronomy early in life.

"It's not just other people who do science," Dr. Della-Rose said. "I want these students to take away the attitude that they can do science, too."

Ms. Sackuvich said her students loved the visit and learned a great deal.

"The kids have raved about it," she said. "They had a great time (and) learned a lot about the constellations they were studying. They learned about stars and how they are studied ... right in their backyard.

"The cadets and Dr. Della-Rose's team did a fabulous job. I was very impressed and happy that we made the time to do this," she added.

The Department of Physics offers tours of the observatory on request to student or Scout groups. Ideal group sizes are about 30 people, Dr. Della-Rose said. To request a tour, contact Dr. Della-Rose at 719-333-3266 or the Physics Department at 719-333-3510.

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