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Galaxies Galore! Astronomy welcomes monthly crowds to Georgia College

Dr. Laura Whitlock examines the Pohl Observatory telescope with Dr. Donovan Domingue.

Fifty-two years after Star Trek first aired on television—space is still the final frontier. It continues to captivate audiences, young and old, through Georgia College’s largest on-going free public outreach program.

“I love sharing astronomy with the public,” said Astrophysicist Dr. Laura Whitlock. “A planetarium’s a great tool to do that with. It really gets everyone excited about the sky.”

Whitlock runs planetarium shows with help from physics students like senior KhaDeem Coumarbatch of Kennesaw. He entered Georgia College as an undecided business major but switched to physics after doing a project on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Someday, Coumarbatch hopes to have a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

He operated his first full planetarium show for the public last spring. It was a 45-minute interactive journey through the solar system that made audiences feel as though they were “flying through space past other planets,” Coumarbatch said.

“You can genuinely see the joy from people, who are extremely curious about space,” he said. “It’s also fun to see how they react to fun facts about space that blow my mind too.”

Whitlock likes watching students grow. They start out imitating professors, then become more confident, developing their style and personality. They decide what topics to cover and spontaneously answer questions, as they control images overhead by remote.

Another planetarium helper is Mia Koriakin, a junior physics major from Peachtree Corners. She left Georgia College’s dual-degree engineering program to focus on physics.

“The practicality of science fascinates me,” Koriakin said. “Everything can be tied back to physics in some way. Learning this has helped broaden my understanding of my surroundings on a micro and macro scale.”

What started as her own curiosity about space ended with Koriakin leading planetarium shows for others. It’s a challenge, finding topics that are understandable to college students, as well as families with young children. But rewards outweigh difficulties.

“I love planetariums,” Koriakin said, “because they’re one of the best ways to learn about astronomy. I believe every student and member of the local community deserves to see the planetarium—whether or not they understand physics or astronomy.”

It’s unusual for a small liberal arts university to have a planetarium. Few schools do. Georgia College’s was built in 2007. It’s small, seating 20 people at a time. Digital simulations of the sky are projected onto a 20-foot-diameter dome that tilts to fit into the room.

Located inside the Natural History Museum in Herty Hall—the planetarium’s equipped with a new high-resolution projector and sound system. Coordinates, typed into a computer, cause a blue circle to appear overhead. Presenters click on the circle and zoom in—instantly showing people items being discussed or questioned. The planetarium also has a dozen mini-movies that explore anything from star formation and origins of life to dark matter and space travel.

In addition to public nights, the planetarium is a favorite fieldtrip destination for kids in Central Georgia elementary and middle schools. Special needs children from GNETS of Oconee have come, as well as youngsters from the Boys and Girls Club of Baldwin County and Georgia College’s Kids University.

For many—it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a planetarium show or looked through a scientific telescope like the one in Pohl Observatory.

“They get really excited just to walk in the room. Many have never seen anything like it before,” Whitlock said. “Everyone should look at the world through a telescope. It’s something you never forget.”

Monthly observatory tours are guided by Dr. Donovan Domingue and Dr. Arash Bodaghee, professors of physics and astronomy. Part of Herty Hall’s expansion in 2010, the observatory is located in a silo-looking tower with a dome 16-feet in diameter. The 24-inch telescope sits on a pier that penetrates bedrock and rises to the fourth floor. This prevents the telescope from vibrating.

It can detect planets, asteroids, galaxies, supernovas and far-off star-forming regions.

“It’s not large by research standards, but it’s large for universities,” Domingue said. “It’s an incredible lens. Some nearby universities are just starting to purchase this size. They don’t really get larger than that.”

Dr. Donovan Domingue.

The telescope is primarily used by physics students to research asteroids. In 2015, Pohl Observatory was accredited by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. That means Georgia College data is trusted, making students potential future contributors of information on previously-unknown asteroids.

About 50 to 100 people come to monthly observatory nights. It’s “a chance to experience something you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see,” Domingue said.

“This is one of the biggest public outreaches on campus in our department,” he said. “Everyone’s always really appreciative. They get visually excited when their eye hits the eyepiece, and they see something like Jupiter or Saturn.”

Students and professors get just as much from the experience. Whitlock jokes about the planetarium being therapeutic. She loves hearing the “oohs,” when the sky goes dark and the stars come out.

“I like being in control of the universe,” she said. “You can make time go forward and backward. You can always trust that the sky will be clear. So, it’s a lovely sense of power.”

“It’s also a great way to interact with the public and share your passion with them,” Whitlock said, “because, let’s face it, planetariums and observatories are just sexy.”

The last public viewing night of 2018 is Friday, Dec. 7. The planetarium opens at 6:30 to show and explain what people can later view in the observatory from 7:30 to 9 p.m. That night, participants will be able to see Mars, the Orion Nebula and the Double Cluster.

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