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Star Party: The Moons of Jupiter

By Mason Edwards, News Editor

Crystal Clinard, a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, looks up at the ceiling of the planetarium where the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster is projected. Sunday, January 28, 2024. Alexis McMurtry, Assistant Photo Editor

Ten minutes down the road from campus, Sunday evening’s twilight hours cast an unsettling half-shadow across Tuxedo Avenue, the home to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Clarence T. Jones Observatory.

Described by its Director Jake Pitkin as “something out of a Stephen King novel,” the observatory’s weathered brick exterior was at first off-putting to some people– and certainly not helped by the building down the road: a former school built in the 1930s, now fallen into disrepair.

Climbing up an uneven pathway of leaf-covered stone steps, one can enter the observatory, which consists of a library, lecture room, staff area and the telescope. Once inside, the friendly staff replaced the apprehension about the building with an energetic liviness. Beautiful prints taken by local astrophotographers lined the walls, showing multicolored nebulas and bright galaxies.

A lifelong Chattanoogan and alumnus of UTC, Pitkin also serves as the lab manager of the Physics department. He finds joy whenever visitors get excited about the galaxy. He remembered one night when a former volunteer brought his daughter and granddaughter, and the observatory had three generations of a family looking through the telescope.

“I have a picture of a nine or ten-year-old kid standing up looking at the telescope, with just utter awe and fascination on the kid’s face,” Pitkin said. “When things get rough, I look at that picture and say, ‘I work for that kid. He’s my boss.’”

According to Pitkin, because last semester’s average attendance ballooned to around 130 people, they had to implement a ticket procedure to deal with the influx. The building’s max capacity is 80.

“We get such a huge cross-section of the community,” Pitkin said. “We get kids that are dragging parents, parents dragging kids. We get students, we get elderly people, we get all kinds.”

Sunday’s Star Party focused on the four moons of Jupiter that Galileo Galilei discovered in 1610. The event typically consists of a lecture, planetarium show and telescope viewing, but cloud cover prevented viewing the night sky. Still, most participants still climbed up the narrow stairs to look at the telescope itself.

Crystal Clinard rushed up the stairs almost as soon as she arrived. A UTC psychology major, her expression of excitement– a phrase some would consider profane– echoed all the way down from the dome to the bottom floor. According to her, she’s definitely coming back on a clear night.

“I went up the stairs, I was so surprised,” Clinard said. ‘“I was like ‘Holy sh*t,’ this is a big telescope.”’

The telescope consists of a 20.5 inch reflector which first saw light in 1938, and all of the telescope’s parts were fabricated in Chattanooga. Pitkin celebrated the recent upgrades to the observatory, which included a new planetarium projector, a smart board and accessibility access ramps.

Even as light pollution limits the targets the observatory can see, what is viewable can be seen well.

“It’s different when you see it for yourself,” Pitkin said, forming each word intently. “It’s like going to a football game versus watching it on tv.”

His lecture gave a quick overview of each of the moons for an audience of around 16 people, with a couple asking questions. One woman, older and dressed in a green jacket, was surprised to learn that Io was geologically active and has volcanoes. 

Other interesting facts included the possibility of a liquid ocean on Europa, details about a planned NASA mission to fly by Europa, and identifying Callisto as possibly the oldest surface in the solar system. 

Cleveland resident Julie Ward, 15, enjoyed learning about the ice formations and structure of Jupiter’s moons. As Pitkin explained, there are several crystalline forms of ice, and astrologists suspect Ganymede has hexagonal ice.

“I’m actually interested in taking astronomy and astrophysics for college, so I wanted to see what it was like,” Ward. “I was hoping that it would be clear, so we could look at the telescope, but just being able to see them in the planetarium was a great experience.”

In another room, the planetarium was a smaller dome with a projection aimed at the ceiling. After cutting the lights, observatory staff lit up the room with stars, and they pointed out constellations like the Big Dipper, Orion and Taurus. People craned their necks to look up, but where they looked corresponded to stars’ locations in the real night sky.

Soon after, the projector displayed Jupiter, and when panning around the planet, the software accounted for the dark sides of each moon. As Callisto spun into view, a faint sliver of light expanded across the horizon and revealed its crater-spocked surface– much to the delight of eight-year-old Eli Marsh.

Marsh loved the planetarium. The observatory’s staff let him pick which of the Galilean Moons to visit first, and his whispered excitement delighted the entire planetarium’s audience. He noted how his dad forced him to go, but he wanted to come back.

“I did all the zooming to all the planets,” Marsh said after the event. “I wanna go to space.”

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