AstroFest offers evening of astronomy activities during Arts Festival

Penn State's popular AstroFest program, a four-night festival of astronomy and stargazing activities during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, returns this year from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13 through Saturday, July 16, on the University Park campus. All ages are welcome to participate in a variety of exciting and educational activities sponsored by the Department of Astrophysics. Events are free and will be conducted rain or shine in classrooms and in the planetarium located on the fifth floor of the campus' Davey Laboratory.

Presentations each night will explore exciting topics ranging from exotic black holes to the discovery of Earth-like planets. In addition, a special presentation will feature a debate between two professional astronomers on one of the most challenging questions in the field -- does intelligent life exist elsewhere in the universe? AstroFest also will offer three-dimensional tours of Mars, the Milky Way, and the universe beyond our galaxy.

On clear nights, visitors will have the opportunity to observe astronomical objects through the telescopes on the Davey Laboratory rooftop observatory. "The planet Saturn, its moons, and its dazzling rings will be viewable throughout the evening," said Andrew Shevchuk, a Penn State alumnus who is flying back from Arizona to guide Astrofest's rooftop observing. "The stargazing menu also will feature gas clouds from exploding stars and bright clusters containing thousands to millions of stars."

The newest AstroFest feature will be a special demonstration allowing visitors to try their hand at finding extrasolar planets. "Visitors will find out how astronomers find planets around other stars, and how close we are to finding another Earth," said Suvrath Mahadevan, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, in charge of the activity. Another new demonstration will give visitors the opportunity to interact with beautiful Hubble images to learn about the "zoo" of galaxies in our universe.

Some of the many other popular AstroFest events are crafts for young children and planetarium shows for all ages, as well as hands-on experiments where kids can launch bottle rockets and make their own comets out of household products.

Kids also may keep an AstroFest activity "passport" -- a stamped record of completed activities and visits to different booths. Those who accumulate enough stamps in the passport will win astronomy-themed prizes.

"Davey Laboratory is very close to where the Arts Festival is held, so it's a convenient location for people to drop by and see what's going on at the 12th annual AstroFest," said Jane Charlton, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics and the founding organizer of AstroFest -- an event that draws about 2,000 visitors each year. "There will be plenty to do inside in case the weather doesn't cooperate, but we are hoping for clear skies and another record-setting attendance for this year's events."

Find more information at http://www.astro.psu.edu/public-outreach/astrofest or contact the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics 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 12, 2011