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Penn State’s AstroFest Celebrates 25th Year

When the sun goes down and booths have closed for the night at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, art lovers and stargazers alike can rejoice in continuing to enrich their minds by visiting the Davey Laboratory on Penn State’s campus for the 25th anniversary of the ever-popular AstroFest

The free event presented by the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics starts Wednesday, July 10 and runs through Saturday, July 13, from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. each night. 

AstroFest was started in 1999 by undergraduate students Karen Knierman, Jane Rigby and Nahks Tr’Ehnl.  

Tr’Ehnl, an instructional technology specialist in the department, still leads the organization of the event today, along with Teaching Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Chris Palma, Assistant Teaching Professor Michael Pagano and Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Jane Charlton.

The 25th anniversary is expected to coincide with another spectacular celestial event with the rare, recurring nova explosion of T Corona Borealis, a binary star system. 

During the nova, the system will be visible to the naked eye, with NASA expecting it to be as bright as Polaris or the North Star in the night sky.  

While there isn’t an exact date, it is anticipated to take place before September and will last anywhere from a few days to a week. It occurs on average about every 80 years.  

Palma wants to make sure people do not confuse a nova with a supernova, the explosion and death of a star. 

“Material collects,” said Palma. “Think of it as filling up a jar and it blows up, over and over and over again.” 

Essentially, he says, “a new star is going to appear in the sky for the first time in 80 years.” 

The T Corona Borealis phenomenon will be the subject of a talk given by Suvrath Mahadevan, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, during AstroFest. 

Elsewhere on the schedule are shows at the planetarium featuring a new projector that was funded by endowments from Larry Travis and Ronald and Susan Friedman. 

It will offer eager learners a different experience from what they might remember in the past. 

“We can give people a live tour of the sky with imagery and animation beyond anything we have been able to show before,” said Palma. “We’re really looking forward to wowing viewers at AstroFest with our new and improved capabilities.” 

And while the night sky weather for viewing the planets is not looking too hopeful, Palma is still excited to show visitors views of the moon, stars and nebulae using one of the now six telescopes available on the roof of Davey Lab, including the addition of a brand new 11-inch telescope donated by Howard Schlegel, a 1971 Penn State graduate.

Speaking of telescopes, new images from the James Webb Space Telescope are among the prizes being offered at astronomy trivia, another crowd favorite.

Co-organizer Jane Charlton is just as delighted as Palma about the return of the annual festival. She and her daughter Thomasin are in charge of the kids’ program and are happy that an old favorite is returning.  

The Oobleck kiddie pool, which features mixing water and cornstarch to create a hard, almost walkable substance, is returning for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While many health and safety mandates were lifted, the Oobleck had been left off the menu out of an extra abundance of caution due to the use of hands and feet. 

Returning favorites like the egg drop and bottle rocket launch are also on deck, as well as two new activities Thomasin Charlton helped create.  

“Nebulae in a Jar” will have kids use tempera paint, cotton balls and glitter to create the look of the interstellar clouds.  

“Space” or “Alien” rocks, depending on the design, is another creation premiering this year. Flat, white rocks can be decorated using many different art mediums. 

Thomasin Charlton is now 23 years old and has been attending AstroFest with her mother for years. Thomasin had always dreamed when she was younger that she would one day be put in charge of activities for the kids’ portion of the nights. 

“This isn’t her field,” said Jane Charlton. “She’s a recording artist but she’s living out one of her fantasies.”  

Encouraging learning through creativity and activities in both children and adults is an important part of the AstroFest team’s goals and its influence is appreciated by the head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Randy McEntaffer. 

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be celebrating 25 years of this impactful community outreach program,” said McEntaffer. 

“Turning people on to the wonders of the universe is incredibly rewarding for us and we hope it inspires them to continue to explore their curiosity through science and beyond.” 

For a schedule of events and more information visit https://science.psu.edu/astro/public-outreach/astrofest.