New England Fall Astronomy Festival Makes a Return after Four Year Break

Aleksandra Bedard, Staff Writer

DURHAM, NH- In conjunction with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS), the University of New Hampshire’s physics and astronomy department hosted their seventh New England Fall Astronomy Festival (NEFAF) on the evenings of Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Since 2011, the event has utilized the grounds of UNH’s observatory to host guest speakers, demonstrations and guided observations of the sky.

The last NEFAF was hosted in 2018, with event organizers citing a lack of funding and the COVID-19 pandemic causing the break. However, after planning and coordinating since January of this year, they eagerly expected a crowd of about 1,000 amateur astronomers for the first time in four years.

“It’s one of the best kept secrets in New Hampshire,” described Mark McConnell, a physics professor at UNH.

John Gianforte, an event organizer and professor in the UNH physics and astronomy department, explained the event as an opportunity to give budding astronomers access to scientific resources.

“We want to reach as far and wide as we can. Even those underserved parts of the state which are really far north that don’t often get exposed to university system campuses,” said Gianforte.

The event kicked off the night with guest speaker Sara Seager, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite a cold night and mild cloud coverage, a quiet crowd of astronomers filled every seat for the presentation. Seager encouraged the crowd to participate in an interactive lecture on the research she has done on exoplanets, followed by a meet and greet and book signing. Afterwards, the crowd dispersed among the grounds for guided observations.

“I used to go here before Covid and I liked it,” recalled undergraduate student Gabriel Hannon. “The people who brought telescopes have really impressive equipment. I could see Jupiter and its moons.”

The evening concluded around 10 p.m., with event staff and volunteers hopeful for another successful day.

A small crowd returned on Oct. 1 to start the day with presentations from UNH staff and students despite a forecast for cloud coverage. The plans for the morning continued as usual, featuring rocket building and educational workshops for young attendees.

“It’s a really enriching experience for them. I’m very glad they have access to it,” remarked event volunteer Jessica Roberts, a student at UNH. “I would have loved to have something like this when I was a kid.”

Most activities continued as scheduled into the afternoon, though solar observations were dampened by the weather. Still, NHAS was pleased to host two telescope clinics. The clinics aim to teach amateur astronomers how to retune and use telescopes for their own exploration of the sky, as well as provide information about the library telescope program, which circulates telescopes around 145 participating libraries in New Hampshire.

After a presentation from guest speaker Alex Filippenko, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkley and a raffle for astronomy-based prizes, attendees waited late into the night for improvements in the weather. After the cloud coverage cleared slightly, volunteers aimed the telescopes for brighter objects like Jupiter and Saturn.

“There were some diehards who didn’t get there till 10 o’clock and stayed till after 11,” explained Gianforte.

Despite the weather, event organizers were grateful for NEFAF’s return. Gianforte described delivering one of the raffle prizes to the winner, an 11-year-old boy from Belmont, New Hampshire:

“The mother told me when I called him the night before he didn’t sleep a wink,” he recalled. “You could be inspiring the future generation of engineers and biologists and astronomers and geologists. It’s very, very rewarding to see that.”

Though the financial and logistical issues preceding this year’s NEFAF may mean an uncertain future, staff and volunteers were content to demonstrate the resources available for astronomers of all levels. Still, Gianforte sees this year’s event as a success:

“It was a nice close.”