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Bays Mountain Astronomy Club promotes astronomy, educates public

Amanda J. Vicars • Mar 12, 2016 at 10:00 AM

The night sky makes amateur astronomers of us all, providing a window into the universe through which to explore planets, constellations and other faraway celestial bodies; and to sometimes witness rare astronomical phenomena.

In this corner of the sky, Bays Mountain Park purveys an outer space curiosity by way of their volunteer organization for astronomy activities called the Bays Mountain Astronomy Club (BMAC).

The activity-based association originated under a different name with Eastman Chemical Company until it joined the Bays Mountain Planetarium Department in 1980 and was entitled Bays Mountain Amateur Astronomers. Roughly 15 years later, it became known as Bays Mountain Astronomy Club - although it still upholds the same open, educational ideals of its predecessor.

BMAC, currently comprised of around 30 members, is accessible to stargazers of all ages and skill levels. Anyone may attend monthly meetings and public events and, if interested, join the organization for a minimal fee of $16 a year - there’s a $6 charge for additional family members and Bays Mountain Park Association members receive a discount.

“We’ve been floating around [30 members] since day one,” said Bays Mountain Planetarium Director Adam Thanz. “Some are more active than others. There’s a lot of opportunities; it depends how far you want to go.”

BMAC meets the first Friday of most months at 7 p.m. in the Discovery Theater classroom of the Bays Mountain Nature Center; the annual club picnic is in July and the yearly club dinner is in January.

Thanz said meetings of the club are structured to cover a main topic each month (this month’s topic is “Women in Science”). The chairman of the club, Brandon Stroupe, oversees the meetings and arranges keynote speakers, which span from club members to outside specialists. Whether a person’s interest lies in astrophotography, the history of astronomy or simply sky watching, membership in BMAC is, as Thanz puts it, “a great way to learn the basics” and “meet people with the same interests.”

“Come to a meeting,” he encouraged. “If you like it, become a member right then.”

Apart from meetings, both the park’s observatory and space organization offer educational programming for members and the public alike. StarWatch is an hour-long program for amateur astronomers looking to view the night sky. It is held at the Bays Mountain observatories on Saturdays at dusk in March, April, October and November. Thanz said if the weather is poor, attendees meet inside the planetarium. StarWatchers are granted free access to all the telescopic equipment in the observatories to view celestial bodies which “keep changing” depending on the weather and time of year.

“We look at the Moon and other bodies through telescopes,” Thanz explained. “It’s a lot of fun.”

If daytime is preferred to observe the sky, Thanz said SunWatch is the way to go. Participants in this weekend program, which runs March through October, may gather at the park’s dam from 3 to 3:30 p.m. on clear Saturdays and Sundays to view the Sun through solar filters.

BMAC also hosts (and co-hosts) events of historic astronomical importance and yearly observance. Coming up on May 9, members of the club, students and faculty of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and the general public will have the opportunity to closely watch the first Mercury transit in 10 years; this type of transit is where the planet Mercury can be seen passing across the Sun. The club has partnered with the ETSU Physics Department to host the free viewing event, complete with telescopes and information, at the ETSU soccer fields.

Soon following on Saturday, May 14, Thanz said BMAC will observe International Astronomy Day with family events at Bays Mountain in order to promote science and the hobby of astronomy. Then, in October (dates to be announced) will come the club’s 33rd Annual StarFest, a nationally-anticipated, three- day astronomical convention/star gathering, at which delegates (both club member and non) pay an all-inclusive fee for meals, camping on the grounds, access to astronomy speakers, regular park programs and activities, and a commemorative T-shirt.

Thanz said for the purpose of public outreach, BMAC publishes a monthly multi-format newsletter full of various astronomy-related articles, has a Yahoo! group for discussions, and just started a YouTube channel to display their meeting presentations. This allows people to “get a flavor for the club,” he said.

For more information on the Bays Mountain Astronomy Club, upcoming events or how to join, visit www.baysmountain.com/astronomy/astronomy-club or call 423-229-9447.