Students, faculty and astronomy lovers gathered atop the hills for an evening “Star Party” at College of the Canyons’ Canyon Country campus on Friday.
The science-themed party greeted visitors with ethereal and spacey music while offering free snacks and smoking colorful drinks (non-alcoholic and cooled with dry ice for effect).
The event was also meant to christen the new 55,000-square-foot addition to the campus, the Don Takeda Science Center, which served as the backdrop for students from various COC science clubs to show off their recent research and projects and for a presentation on the history of the exploration of Mars.
“It’s an event that brings together students, faculty and community,” said Anthony Michaelides, dean of Campus services and operations at COC. “In this case, we’re celebrating the sciences tonight, right under our new Takeda Science Center.”
The 40-minute presentation was given by John Callas, program manager for fundamental physics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Callas further explained what exactly that entails.
“So we use the physics of quantum mechanics to produce very precise instruments that can measure the weakest possible forces out there,” said Callas. “So what we want to try to do is to look for new forces or explanations for phenomena we don’t yet have an understanding of like dark energy or dark matter. Is general relativity the correct theory?”
Callas said that as much as he’d love to talk about quantum sensors, he was actually there to talk about the history of the Mars exploration rover project, which he was the manager of from 2006 to 2019.
Callas gave a detailed history of the project and got attendees up to speed on where it is now, but also gave them a glimpse into the project’s future.
“This is a new phase of exploration and the analogy I might use is like Antarctica,” said Callas. “One hundred and 20 years ago, explorers were trying to get to the South Pole for the first time. And so there were these one-off explorations. And they were just these adventures of exploration, that would happen for a period of time, but then people would go home.”
Callas said this was the same for Mars, a series of one-off exploration adventures. But now the project wants to make a permanent base on Mars.
“Now we’re there to stay. Now, we’re doing it robotically. But it’s a sustained exploration. And we’re exploring it in very human ways with these robotic systems,” said Callas. “Instead of sending humans there, which would be very difficult, very costly, very dangerous. We send proxies, robotic systems, these rovers that drive around, use their vision systems to discover and explore on our behalf. And so in a sense, we feel like we’ve been there.”
While a professional NASA scientist explaining the past and future about the possibilities of space exploration left an impression on the students, their own achievements were also highlighted in the event.
A team of COC science students were able to compete against university-level students for spots on NASA platforms and this year that team will be sending four of their experiments to space. None of the other teams are launching more than one experiment.
“These students are talented, they are intelligent, and they get it done,” said Teresa Ciardi, professor at COC’s Earth and space sciences department.
John Boyer, a mechanical engineering major at COC, elaborated on some of the projects that will make their way into space. One of them is a High Altitude Student Platform, or HASP, which uses silicon and glass photomultipliers as a radiation detector.
“Basically, what those do is they detect gamma radiation in the upper stratosphere,” said Boyer. “Then turn that into visible light that we can then detect and see how much radiation is up there.”
The students are also working on rocket technology such as an autorotational system that slows rockets down upon descent. This is similar to technology used in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable rocket.
In addition to the clubs’ showcases and Callas’ presentation, there were also a variety of telescopes, further away from all the light pollution, brought by local amateur astronomy groups for attendees to look through.
“I always wanted to do this ever since I was a little kid but about seven years ago my wife said, ‘Yeah, you can go out and buy a telescope,’” said Robi Mukherjee, an amateur astronomer and owner of an F10 celestron telescope. “So I went and got this and I’ve been using it ever since. Now I have, like, 10 telescopes. But this is my workhorse.”
Mukherjee said this specific telescope was good for deep sky viewing such as star systems and nebulae. Even with some cloud cover, attendees were still able to peer through the eyepiece and watch the twinkling of Orion’s belt.
For more information on the Takeda Science Center or science-related events through COC, visit: https://bit.ly/38iTfGg.