By Emma Castleberry
Bernard Arghiere, advisory board member for the Astronomy Club of Asheville (ACA), calls astronomy a “gateway science,” meaning that it can grab people of all ages with excitement and engagement. “That early interest in astronomy for children engages them in science,” he says. “While most of them will not become astrophysicists, that engagement may drive them into medicine, chemistry, biology and even technology, engineering and mathematics. For others, that connection to the nighttime environment in the skies overhead, where they spend half of their short lives, can help provide more meaning to their sense of place in this world around them.”
ACA is a nonprofit educational organization that provides astronomy outreach for people of all ages. “Our mission is to explore and share the wonders of astronomy here in the Asheville region,” says Arghiere. With more than 150 members, the club has robust participation in its events, which include two or three star gazes and a lecture presentation every month, as well as other gatherings during significant astronomical events like this month’s Transit of Mercury on Monday, November 11. The club will host two viewing sessions for this rare crossing of the sun’s disk by the planet Mercury, as seen from Earth: at Pack Square Park from 8 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and at Tanbark Ridge Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway from 7:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
The club meets on the first Thursday of each month, usually at the Reuter Center at UNCA. Past presentation topics have included The Lambda Boötis Star System; From Small Step to Giant Leap: 50 Years Since Apollo; and James Webb Space Telescope – The Future of Space Sight. Most speakers hold PhDs in various astronomy-related careers. “Astronomy is a very broad field of science, and our presentations will reflect that diversity,” says Arghiere. This month’s meeting, on Thursday, November 7, is in Room 125 at Rhoades-Robinson Hall at 7 p.m. Dr. Stephen Danford from UNC Greensboro will present The Wonderful Life of a Star.
Also this month, ACA will host a free public star gaze on Saturday, November 16, at Grassland Mountain Observatory in Madison County. Star gazes are usually held here or at The Lookout Observatory on the UNCA campus. The club is a partner with UNCA in the operation and use of Lookout Observatory, and provided funding for the observatory’s construction, completed in 2014. The club wholly owns and operates the Grassland Mountain Observatory, which houses a larger telescope than the two available at Lookout Observatory. Grassland Mountain also offers a much darker night sky for better viewing of the plane of the Milky Way galaxy.
“What’s special about the star gazes is that folks get an opportunity to see and connect with the planets, the moon, stars and star clusters and even a few galaxies, with their own eyes, and that is so much more exciting than looking at even the most wonderful astronomy images found on the web,” says Arghiere. “The university student docents and the astronomy club members also provide a resource for folks to ask questions about what they are seeing in the eyepiece or in the skies overhead.”
The club also offers private group star gazes at Grassland. “In a world where most people are looking down a lot at their phones and computers, exposure to astronomy often provides a valuable experience to connect with the natural world and engage with others,” says club member Laura La Fleur. “ACA believes that everyone should be able to have these experiences. Finding common ground and fostering understanding of our connection to the universe, and each other, is essential.”
ACA member José Bautista Cruz is also a member of the Asociación de Astronomía de Colombia (ASASAC). When he moved to Kernersville, he immediately started trying to find an astronomy club in his new home. “I’m training my ears in astronomical English vocabulary,” says Cruz, adding that the exclamations people make when looking through his telescope have been a great way to learn colloquial English expressions. “I love when parents come with their kids, because those are very important moments that can change lives,” he says.
Cruz says he wasn’t a great student and most sciences were difficult for him. “But astronomy was the perfect way for me to understand a lot of other sciences,” he says. “It’s like a revelation I want to share with everyone. The astronomy club provides the opportunity for you to expand your mind in infinite ways and talk about these things with very kind and friendly science guys.”