Last semester, Eve Chase ’16 and Ethan Voytko ’17 noticed a lack of astronomy-related extracurricular offerings at the College of William and Mary and decided to create a new club to rectify the situation. On the roof of William Small Hall, the Astronomy Club was born.
“I think astronomy was the first subject I was ever passionate about in high school. I was president of the astronomy club at my high school and wanted to do the same thing here,” Chase said. “William and Mary is very behind other colleges in terms of astronomy, so I think we needed this.”
Before there was a club, many students interested in astronomy had already been meeting within the physics department to stargaze. However, Chase and Voytko decided to turn the meetings into an official club.
According to physics professor Wouter Deconinck, the decision to create the official club will help instill a long-lasting interest in the subject.
“This is going to ensure that it has a longer lifespan than just the particular students, and this club will provide some way of students doing that and getting leadership training,” Deconinck said. “It also gives the club a bit more legitimacy, so when they want to work with other organizations or have access to the telescope, it is easier to coordinate.”
The club meets on Wednesday evenings to discuss current astronomy news — new investigations, updates on space missions — and to discuss the logistical aspects of upcoming events and trips. Occasionally, Chase and Voytko will give a short presentation, or the group will watch a video on astronomical topics.
“We have been trying to do a trip jointly with U.Va astronomy to the Greenback radio telescope in West Virginia. There were conflicts and really bad weather the weekend we tried to go, so we are going to reschedule it,” Voytko said.
Often, the group goes to Lake Matoaka to stargaze. Sometimes the stargazing sessions take place on the roof of Small Hall, where there is an open area to set up telescopes for stargazing. The roof of Small also houses the Thomas Harriot Observatory, which the club sometimes uses for special events.
“I really like when we have big observing sessions, or star parties as we call them,” Voytko said. “We talk to people in a local stargazing association in the area, and they will also come out to William and Mary to set up telescopes on the roof of Small. We get a lot of people out there, and it is really enjoyable.”
The Virginia Peninsula Astronomy/Stargazers (VPAS) often joins with the Astronomy Club to stargaze together. VPAS brings the telescopes, and the club helps to coordinate events. Together, they observe the moon, planets, galaxies and stars. However, the Astronomy Club eventually hopes to be able to purchase a telescope of its own.
According to club secretary Jacob Gunnarson ’17, astronomy is a field that relies on contributions from amateur scientists.
“Unlike a lot of other things, people at the amateur level can actually do some real science in astronomy. You can help organizations map craters on Mars or the moon, and you can get involved with programs that analyze telescope data,” Gunnarson said. “Students can make actually meaningful contributions to astronomy.
While the club does have many physics-oriented members, they are not the only students involved. The club encourages students with all skill and experience levels in astronomy to come to a meeting.
Member Divya Bathey ’16 said one of the nice things about the group is watching the sky with other astronomy enthusiasts.
“It is a really great group of people, and it is so nice to hang out at night and go outside and look up at the stars because a lot of people don’t even think about it,” Bathey said.
Member Karin Lehnigk ’16 said the club is attempting to diversify activities in addition to members.
“The direction of astronomy club is intended to be very tailored to what members want to do. Many clubs on campus, especially science and engineering clubs, have specific projects they’re working on,” Lehnigk said. “We have a few projects we’ve been tossing around, but the main purpose of the club is to give the William and Mary community outlets to explore whatever aspects of astronomy interest them most.”
Chase made it clear that the club wants to continue having regular stargazing sessions, purchase its own telescope, set up lectures from astronomers and find ways for the club to go on more trips. People of all experience levels are welcome, she said.