Discover the Universe in Maryland and Delaware

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Wednesday, April 24, 2013

During the month of March, the Sussex County Astronomy Society and the Delmarva Space Sciences Foundation held three events — one at the seashore, one at a rocket launch complex, and one on a boardwalk — as part of Astronomy magazine’s Discover the Universe program to bring sidewalk astronomy to everyone. Gerry Lyons, the Sussex Society’s outreach coordinator, reports on their success:

Assateague Island National Seashore
On March 9, we held our first event of the season with the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. To attract a large crowd, we started with a media blitz. We appeared on a local daytime TV show, placed information in all three local newspapers, and worked with a local DJ who did public service announcements for five radio stations (I highly recommend this market if you haven’t tried it before).

Gerry Lyons (Sussex County Astronomy Society)
The night of the event, we worked in conjunction with some members of the Delmarva Stargazers. To begin, a NASA scientist spoke about meteors and meteorites. Our attendees then ventured outside so we could introduce them to a crystal-clear, incredibly dark night sky with 11 telescopes varying in size from 108mm to 14 inches.

Because our evening was aimed at children, families went inside the seashore’s visitors’ center to warm up, drink hot chocolate, and participate in activities such as building a sky wheel. Due to the chill in the air, copious amounts of hot chocolate disappeared.

After a while inside, visitors came back outside for another round of celestial delights. While the rangers at Assateague hoped for 100 people, we had approximately twice that number — 200!

Wallops Island
Do you know the significance of MARS on the Delmarva Peninsula? MARS stands for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which is the rocket launch complex at Wallops Island in Virginia, associated with the NASA Flight Facility. Scientists will begin launching rockets to the International Space Station and the Moon during 2013.

Gerry Lyons (Sussex County Astronomy Society)
March 22 is the annual celebration of Sun-Earth Day. This year, NASA sponsored a webcast out of MARS and invited 100 – 120 middle- and high-school folks from the area to participate. NASA asked the Sussex County Astronomy Society and the Delmarva Space Sciences Foundation to do solar astronomy in conjunction with the event. We had eight solar telescopes in place, as well as the materials from the Astronomy Foundation, the Night Sky Network, and NASA Goddard.

Our final attendance total for the event was 180. Afterward, the scientist presenters came outside to check out our equipment and material. They seemed very pleased and surprised to see that we were promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects while sharing our experiences and our passion for astronomy.

Rehoboth Beach
On March 29–30, we held our second annual Easter weekend astronomy event on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. This is usually the first weekend that sees a significant influx of visitors each spring.

While temperatures were cool, visibility was moderate, even under the heavily light-polluted skies of the boardwalk. We obtained permission again to set up our equipment at the busiest point of the boardwalk. Curious onlookers mobbed us while we attempted to set up.

Despite that, we managed to set up five telescopes each night, ranging from 3 inches to 11 inches and mostly of the Schmidt-Cassegrain variety. The festive group of attendees, ranging in age from infants to 80-year-olds and including many children, displayed highly infectious happiness throughout the two nights. Friday, March 29, the group was smaller because visitors were still arriving at the beach for the weekend from the surrounding areas of Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. We fielded many questions about how to locate local programs when visitors went home. That night, we spoke with at least 350 people; Saturday night, we totaled about 475 folks. Most of them left with pamphlets, brochures, magazines, and business cards. Representatives from various schools in the surrounding states subsequently contacted our astronomy society about providing programs for the school systems. A Girl Scouts regional representative also contacted us about future participation with them.

Overall, these three events in one month provided us direct contact with close to 1200 people. Indirect contact numbers through publicity channels and networking cannot be estimated. But the return on investment is (if you’ll pardon the pun) astronomical.

That’s quite a reach! Thanks to the Sussex County Astronomical Society and the Delmarva Space Sciences Foundation for being the first Discover the Universe bloggers this year and for holding successful events that include hot chocolate. If your astronomy club is interested having a sidewalk astronomy event that gives someone their first-ever view through a telescope, and you’d like to take part in Discover the Universe, send me an email! I’m Associate Editor Sarah Scoles, and my email address is sscoles@astronomy.com. I’ll be happy to discuss the program more with you and send you an application

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