McGill Students’ Astronomy Club: Out of this World

The area surrounding Coudersport is known for some of the darkest skies in the east. This photograph was taken across 15 minutes at 30" exposures, 2 hours away from Erie, the closest major city. (Pieter Kuiper / Wikimedia Commons User)
The area surrounding Coudersport is known for some of the darkest skies in the east. This photograph was taken across 15 minutes at 30″ exposures, 2 hours away from Erie, the closest major city. (Pieter Kuiper / Wikimedia Commons User)

Between the COSMOS series, recently reintroduced with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, and the BICEP2 discovery, the realm beyond our atmosphere has been receiving a lot of attention lately. But for the members of the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club, this level of interest is the status quo.

In August 2012, a group of undergraduate and graduate students in the Physics Department decided to start the club. Since then, they’ve organized a number of events, both independently and cooperatively. Of course, a key set of events are their regular sky-gazing trips. Usually, they aim for one trip a semester – as long as the Canadian climate cooperates. They also head out to the Rutherford Reservoir for observation nights. For those who want to explore the night sky on their own but are unfamiliar with how a telescope works, the club also organizes telescope training sessions. While three sessions were offered in 2013, the weather has so far prevented the club from holding any this semester. They also organize AstroTalks, which gives members a chance to pitch a topic, prepare a twenty-minute talk, and deliver it.

More recently, they’ve also provided a place for students to watch COSMOS. Those who were looking for a communal viewing experience could have found one in Rutherford 118 last Friday. (For those with cable at home, it can be seen on Global TV at 9PM on Sundays – GlobalTV also makes the episodes available and free to stream for one week after their appearance on TV.) Additionally, the club hosted a talk on March 21st by Professor Ken Ragan (who many McGill science students know and love from their 100-level physics courses) about dark matter and dark energy. The club has a few major events left to run this school year, including a partnership with the Redpath Museum for Earth Hour on March 29th and a trip to Mt. Megantic, an international dark sky reserve, on April 4th. (Incidentally, according to the club’s Facebook page, tickets are still available.)

And anyone can join them, no matter what their field of study. For example, you certainly wouldn’t expect the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club to be led by a Political Science student, but it’s clearly a passion project for Avital Drucker, the president of the club this year. After her first year, having read “a lot of Carl Sagan,” she sought out a club where she could continue to learn and develop her interest. While the clear majority of members are involved in a physics major or minor, they welcome anyone with open arms.

The club has also integrated itself into the larger McGill astrophysics community. Their partnership with AstroMcGill, the astrophysics department’s outreach program, has given the club access to two telescopes which they use for their telescope training sessions, as well as a support network. The two organizations complement each other nicely; AstroMcGill looks beyond the McGill campus, and the club focuses within.

Over the last few years, the club has developed bigger events, and increased the attendance at these events. And “we have an office now,” points out Drucker, which is located in SSMU 435. In the future, the club hopes to experience “more growth” and to solidify the role they already play. Drucker hopes that the club will expand their educational offerings – including developing a more theoretical telescope training program – and maybe help communicate research opportunities for students interested in astrophysics. While “citizen science” isn’t really on the club’s radar, Drucker seems optimistic: “We did have this program called the Radio Telescope Project.” She details that they were planning on observing the speed at which the galaxy rotates, for starters. “I want to bring that back,” Drucker told me, but as the telescope is currently under renovation, the club would need someone who is dedicated to ensuring the equipment is functional. Whatever happens in the next few years, it seems that the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club is well on its way to ensuring that McGill students – whether they are in Physics, Political Science, or Philosophy – can always have a place to go if they want to look up at the beauties of the night sky with the curiosity of a scientist.

You can connect with the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club on Facebook

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