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Through the lens of power: Astronomy club reaches for the stars

John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.

The night sky is an extraordinary thing. Even focusing past the visibly bright stars, the naked eye can see a cluster of others as they float in the void. Space is a topic of interest to Dr. Guenter Maresch and members of the local North Florida Community College (NFCC) astronomy club.

Inside the Morris G. Steen Science Building, one can find the largest telescope in North Florida, which rests in the lobby until it's rolled into the parking lot for use. In a long classroom, however, is where one can find more telescopes, knowledge and the eager astronomical enthusiast. Room 112 is by no means a museum. In fact, students and guests are encouraged to peak at the never-ending universe.

Every first and third Monday, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., members gather to discuss and plan for what's next, such as major events like the lunar eclipse, which occurred in February. In the past, the astronomy club has invited the public out to experience other adventures the club partakes in, including watching for comets and monitoring planet Venus on its course.

Helping the club dig deeper into the universe, NFCC uses an observatory stationed at the Jefferson County Extension Office, west of Monticello, on Hwy. 90. The observatory is placed in an open field, allowing no pollution of light which could distort the magnification of objects in space. "To take good pictures, the telescope needs to be far away from light pollution and the extension office is one of the darkest places in North Florida," said Dr. Maresch.

The observatory is actually maintained by Dr. Maresch, with NFCC funds for the astronomy class, lab and club. The research-grade instruments are considered a "real jewel very few people know about," said Dr. Maresch.

According to the astronomy club's website, the telescope has been vital in studying systems such as the Orion Nebula, M42. The Orion Nebula is located at a distance of 1,344 light years and estimated to be 24 light years across, spanning 2000 times the mass of the sun. The pictured photo of the Orion Nebula was taken in December of 2016 by Dr. Maresch. According to Maresch, the system includes neutral clouds of gas and dust, an association of stars, ionized volumes of gas and reflection nebulae.

Dr. Maresch has been at NFCC for seven years, however, the astronomy club has been meeting for five years. "[The students are] always engaged, always easy to excite, always interested," said Dr. Maresch. "Every human being has a relationship to the night sky. Most people who don't take classes about astronomy or are not very well read on the internet, don't know what this all means. I like to teach astronomy because there is this natural tendency for everybody to find some awe in the night sky. That understanding comes with taking an astronomy class, lab or coming to the astronomy club."

With Dr. Maresch are three interested students who have found themselves enjoying the knowledge astronomy brings. An art major at NFCC, Breanna Fernald, took an astronomy class which drew her interest further. Additionally, Alyssa Wheeler and her father, Russell, have been members since January. Wheeler's interest was sparked after finding out about the club through an NFCC event. Furthermore, Nathan Heburn, who is moving forward to Florida State University to major in chemistry, has found that astronomy has become a very interesting subject for him to focus on.

"Astronomy looks at the biggest things. We see the stars, we see the galaxy; we see the whole entire universe, but all of them are being controlled by these minuscule particles and all of these forces. These forces, they're making these huge, majestic galaxies. They're making these things come to together," said Heburn.

Are you interested in what mysteries the universe holds? Dr. Maresch invites you to join them at their next meeting, which will take place on Monday, June 3, beginning at 7 p.m. The club meets at NFCC's Morris G. Steen Science Building #34, room 112. For more information about what the astronomy club has to offer, visit www.nfcc.edu.

Greene Publishing, Inc. Photo by Ashley Hunter, May 24, 2019 The North Florida Community College's Astronomy class, lab and club use an observatory that is stationed in Jefferson County. Located at the Extension Office in Monticello, Fla., the observatory is dubbed a "jewel" not many people know the college has, according to Dr. Guenter Maresch.

Greene Publishing, Inc. Photo by John Willoughby, May 22, 2019 Standing next to a tower radio telescope, just outside of the Morris G. Steen Science Building, these students and guests are always prepared to take up a fun, exciting and adventurous challenge. Pictured, from left to right, are: Alyssa Wheeler, Dr. Guenter Maresch, Nathan Heburn and Breanna Fernald.

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