Photo and story by Hannah Adams / Contributing Writer
MTSU Professor of Physics and Astronomy Chuck Higgins kicked off February’s “Star Party” Friday with a lecture on the Cassini Mission of Saturn. He spoke to an almost full house of students, children and other professors.
Originally started at MTSU in 1999, the parties are open to the general public. Typically, the event will begin with an hour-long lecture, followed by a telescope observation outside of the Wiser-Pattern Science Building. Every Star Party is led by a different professor with a new topic.
“I can’t top the eclipse,” Higgins said at the beginning of the lecture. “I just can’t.”
When the “Great Tennessee Eclipse” took place last year, Higgins worked with students and citizen scientists to collect data and perform research on the impact of the eclipse.
He began the lecture by giving his audience handouts of February’s sky map, which includes all the constellations and planets that can be seen throughout the month. In addition to these fliers, he also provided the younger audience members with models of Cassini, a NASA space probe.
His PowerPoint presentation consisted of computer-animated illustrations of Saturn, as well as photos of the real Cassini probe.
Higgins’ main focus was “Cassini’s Grand Finale,” which is its completed mission and orbit of Saturn.
The initial mission, launched in 1997, arrived to Saturn in roughly 2004 and was orbiting the planet until September 2017, when the mission came to its end.
Since it ran the risk of carrying germs, the spacecraft had to be destroyed and thus thrust itself straight into Saturn’s hemisphere, exploding on impact. Higgins provided a computer animated demonstration of Cassini’s farewell.
Thanks to Cassini, people were able to learn more about Saturn than what was thought possible about its rings, moons, seasons and magnetic field.
“Saturn is emitting radio waves, and it’s tied to the planet’s spin and magnetic field. So, the spacecraft can monitor that,” Higgins said.
After the lecture, Higgins allowed the audience to ask questions, which he happily answered. He also invited everyone to the MTSU Observatory outside and look into the telescopes for as long as they could stand the cold.
“The cold won’t bother me,” said Zach Verdon, a high school junior who came to the event with his sister. “My telescope sucks. I can’t wait to use these ones. That’s why I came.”
The next Star Party will be held on March 6 with John Wallin, an MTSU physics and astronomy professor, lecturing on the topic, “The Invisible Universe and How We See It.”
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