Thanksgiving Eve comets at Beloit College

During good weather, visitors can borrow the Beloit College’s 10-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes to view the heavens with. Pictured is Beloit College Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dr. Britt Scharringhausen, who hosted the Nov. 26 Open House at the Beloit College Center for the Sciences. (Photo by Jeremy Oster)
During good weather, visitors can borrow the Beloit College’s 10-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes to view the heavens with. Pictured is Beloit College Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dr. Britt Scharringhausen, who hosted the Nov. 26 Open House at the Beloit College Center for the Sciences. (Photo by Jeremy Oster)

By Jeremy Oster
Staff Writer

BELOIT, Wisconsin — A frosty autumn fog clung to the sky over the Rock River, blurring out the moon and hiding the stars from view. Visitors would not be able to use the public access telescopes on the roof of the Beloit College Center for the Sciences building to view comets and learn about a recent landing on one.

Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dr. Britt Scharringhausen was unperturbed by the inclement weather. Just in case Mother Nature decided not to cooperate, Dr. Scharringhausen had the forethought to create a family friendly PowerPoint presentation on comets.

Dr. Scharringhausen said: “We are always excited to have local residents come visit on open house nights! Being here tonight is a part of my job, but it’s also a part of my job that I really, really like!”

The Beloit College Center for the Sciences held its last open house for 2014 on Wednesday, Nov. 26. Even though it was Thanksgiving Eve, two dozen adults and children, including a troop of Beloit Girl Scouts, arrived at 7:30 p.m. and took their seats in Room 150 for the lecture.

After the lecture, parents and students visited the Beloit College Center for the Sciences fifth-floor Observation Deck. The telescopes are attached to the blue posts you see here. (Photo by Jeremy Oster)
After the lecture, parents and students visited the Beloit College Center for the Sciences fifth-floor Observation Deck. The telescopes are attached to the blue posts you see here. (Photo by Jeremy Oster)

The night’s main topic of discourse was the Rosetta space probe’s recent successful delivery of the robotic lander Philae to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta was launched by the European Space Agency from Kourou, French Guiana on March 2, 2004, and a decade later, Philae became the first spacecraft to successfully land on a comet Nov. 12, 2014.

Philae didn’t send back as much data as was anticipated because it bounced off the originally targeted landing point (Agilkia) and settled in a dark crevice under a cliff instead. Philae’s solar panels have been rendered useless and the lander has gone silent.

Dr. Scharringhausen noted that “The good news is that the comet is getting closer and closer to the sun every day. There is a good chance that by April of 2015 we may regain control of Philae and some or all of its research tools.”

Dr. Scharringhausen successfully explained such a complicated subject to a predominantly grade school-aged audience while still keeping the interest of the adults in the room.

Dr. Scharringhausen earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and began teaching in Wisconsin at Beloit College in 2006.

After the presentation, Dr. Scharringhausen led the students and parents over to an elevator and up to the fifth-floor roof of the Center for the Sciences building. Students and parents were allowed to go out on the observation deck and see the telescopes that will be available for use during the next open house, weather permitting.

Beloit College is at 700 College St., Beloit, Wisconsin, and can be reached at (608) 363-2000 or online at https://www.beloit.edu/. 2015 Beloit College Center for the Sciences open house Wednesdays will be at 9 p.m., Feb. 25, March 25 and April 22. Learn more at https://www.beloit.edu/campus/events/?search=observatory&go=go.

Posted Dec. 2, 2014

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