by Julie Lineback

Space: the final frontier. Hundreds of Earthlings gathered at Central High School in Carrollton armed with telescopes and curiosity. Their seven-hour mission: to witness the rare occurrence of Mercury crossing the sun.

Students Soar to New SightsThe University of West Georgia Observatory hosted the public outreach event to provide an opportunity for high school students and members of the community to view the Mercury Transit. This is the longest duration of this type of eclipse since the early 1970s. Ben Jenkins, senior lab coordinator and associate director of the UWG Observatory, explained that because Mercury is a smaller planet that lies within Earth’s own orbit, the two planets and the sun don't align often. When they do line up, it is only in the months of May and November.

“The May transits are rarer, and during these Mercury and Earth are closer to each other than in the November transits,” Ben said. “About 13 transits take place over the course of a century, and this was the longest duration transit of Mercury until 2095.”

Because of its size and close proximity to the sun, Mercury is a difficult planet to see. Ben and his crew provided the spectators with protective eclipse glasses and three different telescopes—white light, hydrogen alpha, and calcium-k. Onlookers peered through the lenses as the planet, which appeared as a tiny dot, made its leisurely stroll.

“This was a lot of fun, and it helps us relate to what we’re learning in class,” said Central High School student Kirsten Bearden.

“We should do more things like this that get us out of the classroom so we can see it with our own eyes,” said classmate Katlian Hester. “You hear about this on the news, and think, ‘Well, that’s great for scientists,’ but this way we actually get to participate too.”

But perhaps no one was as excited as Bremen kindergartener—and possible future astronaut—Brady Veal, who said he couldn’t wait to go back to school and learn about outer space.

“This was so cool!” he exclaimed with stars in his eyes. “I really loved it.”

In between viewings, Ben shared some scientific knowledge with the students and gave them a brief history and a glimpse into the future of the sun. He “rotated” and “revolved” around the students in an example of how the stars and sun move at different rates in the night sky and shared why the sky is blue and sunsets are orange by using egg-shaped rocks that simulated how light is scattered in our atmosphere.

“This was an excellent opportunity to engage the students and allow them to explore our solar system,” he said.

For more information about the UWG Observatory, including a schedule of upcoming events, please visit https://www.westga.edu/academics/cosm/physics/observatory.php.

Posted on May 25, 2016