It’s no secret UCF loves space. From a space-themed football game to its “reach for the stars” motto, space is a part of the university’s fiber.
The university was founded in part to support the space industry on the Space Coast. Since then, faculty and students have participated in more than 600 NASA research projects and many more for private companies. Through it all, students have been an integral part of the effort.
For example, the International Observe the Moon Night event — which drew more than 100 people to campus on Oct. 16 — is supported by the student-run Astronomy Society. It was the fourth Knights Under the Stars public event this school year for the club.
Knights Under the Stars is run entirely by volunteers from Astronomy Society. Undergraduate and graduate students are able to share their passion for space by helping the public explore celestial bodies in outer space.
During the events, students who are pursuing space-related studies help faculty set up telescopes at the Robinson Observatory or other spots on campus. They help guests view through the lenses to see the cosmos.
Director of the Robinson Observatory and Physics Professor Yan Fernandez has been researching comets and asteroids since 1994. He is thrilled to see individuals from all over campus pause and take in the brilliance of the night sky.
“We really enjoy showing everyone just how wondrous astronomy is. That ‘wow’ moment when someone has their first up-close view of Saturn’s rings, or craters on the moon, or Jupiter is extremely satisfying,” says Fernandez. “The Astronomy Society always has a good group of students who are excited to do these outreach events. In fact, we couldn’t put them on without their contribution and effort.”
The Astronomy Society is based out of the Department of Physics and focuses primarily on planetary sciences. The club is made up of individuals with a love for all things space. The society hosts general body meetings where guest speakers talk about their research. The group also organizes adventure trips related to space.
The club provides a space to foster interest in space exploration and aims to inform members about the scientific side of astronomy and helps the public better understand the importance of space sciences, explains club president Catherine Millwater. She is pursuing a degree in physics (astronomy track). As an undergrad she also conducts research with the Exoplanet Research Group and at the Exolith Lab.
“The Astronomy Society has been an integral part of my undergraduate experience,” Millwater says. “It’s opened up new avenues for friends in the same field and has helped me find research opportunities.”
For Mae McGonigal, another member of the society, it’s all about learning and sharing knowledge. She enjoys participating in the Knights Under the Stars public events from stargazing at Memory Mall to visiting the Robinson Observatory on campus.
“I love being able to learn about what’s going on in our solar system and sharing it,” McGonigal says.
The Dark Sky Camping Trip is another highlight of the fall semester. Members grab their tents and sleeping bags to spend a night out in the fields. Without light pollution, the view of the night sky is magical, says Johnna Noel whose been a society member for three years.
“It was really cool and inspiring to see the Milky Way for the first time during the camping trip,” she says.
The society welcomes students from all majors.
“Whether it be physics, engineering, math or science communications, or any others, you’ll find a home in Astronomy Society,” says Parks Easter, the club’s vice president. “As long as you have a passion for space you are welcome, and the benefits are fantastic. The guidance and opportunities members receive from field professionals and research mentors is invaluable.”
Weather allowing, the Astronomy Society’s next public event is scheduled for Wednesday Nov. 10 at dusk (approximately 7:15 p.m.) at the Robinson Observatory. Check the observatory’s Facebook page or website for updates.