Cosmic curiosity abounds in NAU Astro Club

Illustration by Shelsey Braswell

Fanatics of space and the stars have the opportunity to study them with the help of the NAU Astronomy Club. This group seeks to educate community members on the entities of the night sky using state-of-the-art technology.

President of the club Natalie Pierson said its purpose is to educate people on the importance of Flagstaff’s dark skies. Another goal is to create an inclusive and united community that is passionate about astronomy.

Pierson said it was this inclusivity that drew her to the club when she was a freshman. Going to the weekly viewing nights and making friends led to her comfort as a member.

"I do my best to create an atmosphere for club members to bond while also learning tips and tricks in the professional field of astronomy," Pierson said.

The club hosts several educational events and fundraisers in the community that are centered around major astronomical events. These include eclipses and most recently the transit of Mercury.

According to NASA, a transit of Mercury occurs when the planet crosses in front of the sun. Early astronomers were able to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun using data from the transit, but now radar technology is used to determine the distance. However the Transit is still a spectacle, because it only occurs 13 times in a century and will not happen again until 2032.

On Nov. 11, the club set up outside Starbucks next to the University Union around 7:30 a.m. and stayed until noon. This spot gave them optimal vantage, because there were no tall buildings to block their view of the sun. Many viewers were morning commuters going in and out of Starbucks who happened to catch the stellar phenomenon by accident.

The club hosts sky viewings every Friday night at the Atmospheric Observatory, where Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 team once trained. At viewings, club members educate community members about the astronomical bodies in a universal and approachable way. They show visitors the technology and telescopes used to study the night sky and methods for locating celestial bodies.

Club treasurer sophomore Ryan Jundt said more than 50 people come each week, eager to see what lies in the cosmos.

“People really love learning about space and our telescopes,” Jundt said. “I think they especially love the people and how we welcome everyone in the community.”

Jundt is triple majoring in mathematics, astroinformatics, and merged physics and astronomy. He started going to club meetings during his freshman year when he saw posters in the physics building and wanted to further pursue his passion for astronomy. Now a sophomore, he has landed a research opportunity at Lowell Observatory. He and his research partner map dwarf galaxies and study their brightness.

“[Researching] is one of my favorite things,” Jundt said. “I want to be a project leader or head researcher at NASA one day, so this is a prime opportunity to get to do what I love and get my foot in the door.”

The club has also participated in the Flagstaff Star Party, a star viewing event in Buffalo Park, and has partnered with Lowell Observatory to help open their latest attraction, the Giovale Open Deck Observatory.

Faculty adviser Lisa Chien, who has a doctorate degree in astronomy, said it is amazing to see the reaction of visitors when they look into a telescope and see something they never have.

Chien spent her childhood in a large city where she rarely saw the stars and was astonished when she did. This amazement is what led Chien to join astronomy clubs in high school and get her degree from the University of Hawaii.

Chien was drawn to this position in the club because she enjoys educating people, from beginners to experts in the field.

"I always want to educate others in the field in new ways," Chien said. "I teach indigenous astronomy, and I want to teach a new course that incorporates gender."

Pierson said she wants to do more within the community. She plans on reaching out to primary and secondary schools to teach students about astrology and to spark new interests.

The group has also visited the meteor crater near Winslow and plans to visit other landmarks and national parks in the future. They are always looking for new members who have a passion for astronomy and welcome any student, regardless of educational background.