Through star parties and more, the Williamson County Astronomy Club helps others “reach for the stars”
Members of the Williamson County Astronomy Club are well acquainted with the awe-inspiring infinity of the night sky. Ask any members of the group, and their faces are sure to light up with the same childlike wonder they had when first introduced to astronomy.
Nevertheless, it’s far more than personal pleasure that keeps members of the 34-year-old group coming back: It’s the pleasure of sharing the wonderment with others.
That’s why, in addition to monthly meetings and members-only viewing events, the Williamson County Astronomy Club (WCAC) holds eight to ten public star parties each year at Southwestern University, as well as four to eight middle school events in Round Rock and Georgetown.
During a typical Southwestern/WCAC star party, Southwestern University opens its Fountainwood Observatory to the public, while members of WCAC arrive with their personal telescopes to supplement the university’s instruments. Visitors are then free to mill around, observing astronomical objects through a variety of telescopes and posing their astronomy-related questions to WCAC members. These public outreach events typically begin 30 to 40 minutes after sunset and provide memorable educational opportunities for the public to peer through telescopes in search of planets, clusters, star pairs, and galaxies.
“It’s always a fun moment when we show someone Saturn for the first time,” says WCAC member and Georgetown resident David Ault. “Saturn is one of the sky’s showpieces. It’s a great one to view because you can typically see details like the division of the rings. But we’ll usually get someone who says, ‘No, that’s not real! That’s a sticker or something!’ It’s fun, because you know they’ve seen it, and you know they’re looking at something real. So then you move the scope and show them that what they’re looking at is really in the sky.”
At the end of the evening, kids, teachers, parents, and other community members go home with a greater knowledge of telescopes, astronomy, and the objects they were lucky enough to spot that night, while WCAC outreach volunteers leave knowing they’ve helped educate the public and, in some cases, even changed lives.
“The most awesome astronomical experience I ever had was during an outreach event,” says David. “There was a young [high school-age] girl who was very curious and asked a lot of intelligent questions. I showed her how to use the telescope and find some objects herself. By the time the evening was over, she was telling people ‘I’m going to be a professional astronomer!’ That was really neat.”
Volunteering to work at star parties and other public outreach events is, of course, purely optional for WCAC members. However, according to David, the high rate of club member volunteerism sets WCAC apart from other Central Texas astronomical groups.
“Nearly a third of our members participate in outreach events, which is significantly higher than for most other clubs,” says David, who is also a member of the Austin Astronomical Society.
In addition to active volunteerism, another defining characteristic of the group is its informal and welcoming atmosphere. There are no dues, no official membership numbers, and no special requirements. To be considered a member, a person need only attend four meetings in a calendar year.
“We’re a group of local amateur astronomers,” says David, a professional electrical engineer. “Anyone is welcome to just show up to one of our meetings. You don’t have to have a telescope or a fancy camera.”
In fact, he advises against that.
“The best recommendation I have for anyone starting out is to attend a star party,” David says. “You’ll get to meet all of these amateur astronomers who have their own equipment and would be very happy to let you look through their telescopes and talk about the scopes’ advantages and drawbacks so that you can make an informed decision about what you want to observe or photograph and what equipment is best for that.”
For information on upcoming star parties hosted by Southwestern University and the Williamson County Astronomy Club, visit www.southwestern.edu/offices/observatory or consult Georgetown’s newspaper, the Williamson County Sun.
The Williamson County Astronomy Club meets the first Thursday of each month at 7:30 P.M. at Fire Station #6 in Round Rock, Texas. For more information, visit their website at www.williamson-astro.org.
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