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Winter Festival of Astronomy a stellar success

From left, USQ’s Matthew Mengel, Associate Professor Jonti Horner, Eminent Visiting Scholar Associate Professor Stephen Kane from San Francisco State University and UNSW’s Dr Rob Wittenmyer in a packed Allison Dickson Lecture Theatre at the USQ Winter Festival of Astronomy.
USQ’s Matthew Mengel, Associate Professor Jonti Horner, Associate Professor Stephen Kane and UNSW’s Dr Rob Wittenmyer.

Talk of astronomy, space, and life elsewhere captured the imagination of more than a thousand attendees of the Winter Festival of Astronomy at USQ Toowoomba last month. 

The curtain closed on the stellar inaugural four-night event with a presentation from Eminent Visiting Scholar Associate Professor Stephen Kane, Department of Physics & Astronomy at San Francisco State University, describing the many ways we search for planets around other stars.

“In 1996 I left Australia and have lived overseas ever since. It just so happened at that time there was a new field starting to flourish and that was the discovery of planets around other stars,” Associate Professor Kane said.

“I have been very fortunate to be involved in this work over the past few decades and have seen it grow and change in amazing ways.

“We are now addressing questions that people have asked for a long time.”

The presentation was followed with a star-gazing event on USQ’s front oval.

Hundreds of amateur astronomers and members of the general community took a different view of the Solar system with commentary and guidance by USQ’s astronomy team.

Winter Festival of Astronomy coordinator and USQ astronomer Associate Professor Jonti Horner said the event had been an overwhelming success.

“It was even better than we could have imagined,” Associate Professor Horner said.

“We had a superb turnout on every night of the event - and everyone seemed to have a great time.

“I’ve had people stop me on campus just to thank me for helping put the event together, and letting me know how much fun they had.

“We had people staying behind for more than an hour after the talks just to have a chat to our speakers.”

Other presenters at the Festival included NASA astrobiologist Professor Lynn Rothschild, NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech research astronomer Dr David Ciardi and USQ’s own Associate Professor Horner.

Associate Professor Horner said the high attendance and enthusiasm showed there was a real hunger in Toowoomba to learn more about astronomy, and it was a fantastic way for the University to give something back to the local community.

“I was thrilled by the number of young people who came along, night after night, and were able to meet the speakers and ask lots of questions - hopefully we’ve helped to inspire some of the next generation of great scientists,” he said.

USQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Jan Thomas said it was a tribute to the USQ’s astronomy team to have drawn the quality of presenters involved in the Festival.

“Of all the planets discovered outside our Solar system, the people at this event are responsible for discovering half of those,” Professor Thomas said.

“To have the planet hunters here in Toowoomba is a rare treat and a great tribute to the quality of our own astronomers and our observatory at Mount Kent.

“Our corner of the world and the University is really on the world map in terms of astronomy.”

To learn more about astronomy at USQ, visit www.usq.edu.au/astronomy. Further details on the USQ Winter Festival of Astronomy can be found at www.usq.edu.au/winterfestival.