AstroFest: An evening of astronomy and stargazing during Arts Fest

Penn State's popular "AstroFest" program, a four-night festival of astronomy activities and stargazing during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, will welcome visitors from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. on July 11-14. People of all ages are welcome to participate in a variety of exciting and educational activities sponsored by the University's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Events are free and will be conducted rain or shine in classrooms and in the planetarium located on the fifth floor of Davey Laboratory.

On clear nights, visitors will be treated to views of Saturn, with its magnificent rings, through telescopes at the Davey Laboratory rooftop observatory. "The larger telescopes will show views of clusters of millions of stars, as well as remnants of dying stars," said Chris Palma, a lecturer in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "If conditions are favorable, visitors may even glimpse the Andromeda Galaxy, a separate city of stars from our own Milky Way," he added.

For children, there will be some special new activities, designed by several of the dozens of enthusiastic student volunteers. The long-favorite activities, such as the bottle-rocket launch, also will be featured. Penn State's astronomy club will be selling 2012 AstroFest T-shirts and visitors will have the opportunity to create an astronomy-themed tie-dye design.

Presentations each night will explore mysterious topics such as the nature of time and the reason that we have not yet been contacted by an alien civilization. There even will be an astronomy version of an "American Idol" competition, in which Penn State astronomers compete with each other for the audience vote by presenting three-minute views of concepts of interest. "It is a local version of a recent national and international competition," said Brendan Mullan, a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and recent winner of the national competition.

The newest AstroFest demonstration lab will be the "Gravity Gym," where visitors can discover how much common objects would weigh under the intense gravity of Jupiter or under the weak gravity of the Moon. The popular "Finding Planets" lab will be open for its second year, allowing a "hands-on" exploration of how astronomers have found hundreds of planets beyond our solar system. Visitors also may try their hands at a video game that is currently under development to teach astronomy to Penn State students.

Kids may keep an AstroFest "activity passport" -- a stamped record of completed activities and visits to different booths. Among the astronomy-themed prize rewards are alien splat balls, light-up rainbow balls, and giant inflatable wands. At the "Astronomy Question and Answer" booth, both adults and youngsters can answer astronomy quiz questions to win astronomy posters, lithographs, and bookmarks.

"We are all so excited about the program that we are putting together for AstroFest this year," said Jane Charlton, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics who is the founding organizer. As this year's AstroFest T-shirt advertises, Charlton and more than 70 volunteers have been "bringing the heavens to Earth since 1999." This year they hope to attract a crowd even larger than the record-setting 2,354 people who attended AstroFest last summer.

Find more information at www.astro.psu.edu/astrofest, "like" AstroFest on Facebook, or contact the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics (by phone at 814-865-0418 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by email at planetarium@astro.psu.edu).

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Last Updated July 05, 2012