JCW Planetarium

We oftentimes find ourselves forgetting to appreciate the present moment. Take a breath and look up at the stars you don’t even have to go outside. 

The cool, damp grass chilled the backs of stargazers. Eyes aimed at the sky traced the constellations that were scattered, illuminating the darkness. This view of far-out galaxies is ever-changing, but available every night; all that’s needed is grass to lie on, eyes to wander with and a clear night sky.

JMU’s John C. Wells Planetarium hosts stargazing parties the last Friday of each month from September through April. It welcomes the public to JMU’s Astronomy Park on East Campus to stare off into the night, exploring further than what the human eye can see — all with the help of a telescope.

Calah Mortensen is a graduate assistant at the planetarium. She’s getting her master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

“We do these parties to build the relationship between us and the public,” Mortensen said. “We are trying to be very inclusive of who can do science.”

While the final star party of the year will be held on Friday, the planetarium holds a wide range of outreach programs aside from the parties, including programs with the Boys & Girls Club and Science Sundays for Girls.

Shanil Virani is the director of the planetarium. He believes that the purpose of the star parties is to influence the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“I think it inspires and motivates children and adults alike to think about who we really are, what we’ve done and what we have yet to do,” Virani said in an email. “When visitors look through our telescope at the moon, I remind them that while 12 men have walked on the Moon, not a single [woman] has yet to do that.”

The entire community is welcome to the star parties, free of charge. The planetarium encourages children to attend in order to broaden their view of what a scientist can be.

“Science is dominated by white men,” Mortensen said. “Children see that at a young age. Typically, if you ask a child to draw a scientist, they will draw an Albert Einstein-looking man. It is our goal to inspire all children.”

Kenny Gordon is a senior physics major and has been working for the planetarium since 2015, when he started off as a camp counselor for the Space Explorers Camp. He interned for NASA during the summer of 2016, and plans on working there after receiving his doctorate. Gordon believes that the planetarium, star parties and space in general are a vital part of the development of science in today’s youth.

“I think it’s really eye-opening for a lot of people, to be honest,” Gordon said. “We never really tend to look up. I really think it allows students, and the community really, to be able to admire and to be curious about the nighttime sky, to really enjoy the beauty of the stars.”

Gordon thinks that the star parties build a curiosity and new love for space.

“Science is used to describe the entire world around us,” Gordon said. “It is used to understand where we are and where we come from.”

During the star parties, some of the visible constellations will change depending on the season. However, there are constellations that are always in the sky above the horizon, circling around the North Star.

The Big and Little Dipper are always visible, along with Draco the Dragon, Andromeda and Cassiopeia. These constellations are easily seen with the help of telescopes and nighttime guides at the star parties.

These parties are about community and gathering together to enjoy the curiosity the sky provokes.

“All of our events, star parties included, serve to remind visitors that we are explorers,” Virani said. “This is who we are and this is what we do … Our destiny is [up] there, not down here.”

Contact Madisson Haynes at breezenews@gmail.com.

Madisson served as news editor for The Breeze during the 2017-18 year. She graduated in May 2018 and now works at National Geographic in D.C. with Global Operations in post production.