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July 22, 2015

Shannon Schmoll: Keep looking up

July 22, 2015

Shannon Schmoll is the director of MSU’s Abrams Planetarium. She received her doctorate in astronomy and education from University of Michigan in 2013. Though not actively working on any projects at the moment, her research has focused on integrating formal and informal learning environments, particularly classrooms and planetariums.

I have been working in planetariums for more than a decade. After years of practice, you can stick me outside and I can immediately point out the constellations.  Earlier this summer I was staring at a sky I did not recognize and I felt lost amongst the stars. I was looking at the southern hemisphere sky for the first time and I felt like a giddy kid again.

I was one of nine lucky astronomy educators chosen to visit Chile through the National Science Foundation-funded Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program. When I was a graduate student I started out in research astronomy. All of my data came from space telescopes and I never got to travel, like many of my fellow students, to breathtaking locales where observatories sat, which made me a tad jealous. This trip changed that as I was able visit not one, but four major observatories in Chile.

spaceAs part of ACEAP we were granted access reserved for staff and professional astronomers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, Gemini South, the Southern Astrophysical Research Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. These are some of the most advanced observatories in the world, with image resolutions that can rival the Hubble Space Telescope. SOAR was particularly intriguing as MSU is a partner and several of our faculty use it for their research.

I went to Chile to learn more about why it is one of the astronomy capitals in the world. On a very practical level, I already knew before going. But to experience it firsthand makes those reasons all the more tangible.

I know we are limited in how much of the sky we can observe from a given latitude. We need facilities in both hemispheres for full coverage. But to see the Magellanic Clouds, Orion rising foot-first, or see the sun cross the meridian in the north is awe-inspiring and humbling.

I know that ground-based observing conditions require good weather, so you want dry deserts. But I experienced how dry these locations really are when I was gasping for lip balm and smelled the lack of moisture in the dust.

I know atmosphere distorts incoming light and the less we have to look through, the better. As a result, ideal observing locations are at high altitudes. But I experienced what it’s like to be at 16,500 feet above sea level at ALMA’s operation site using oxygen canisters and feeling my brain misfire as I tried to speak the little Spanish I know and it only came out in other languages I have studied.

Shannon Schmoll at observatoryI know that Chile has these ideal conditions and the government invited astronomers more than 50 years ago. But I met the passionate Chileans who make astronomy their life’s work and welcomed us like family.

So much of what we teach at Arbams Planetarium focuses on the Northern Hemisphere. This makes sense as we encourage visitors to observe the natural world around them, which happens to be in the Northern Hemisphere. However, science is a global endeavor. None of the observatories we visited are possible without the support of scientists and governments across continents. Much of the science we teach requires these observatories and the intense collaborations needed to keep them running.

I hope to bring this expanded world view home to Abrams with new programming related to the science and culture in Chile, and continue collaborating with my fellow educators across hemispheres. Keep an eye out for what we produce and keep looking up!