To Infinity and Beyond: Lynchburg’s Role in Space Science

Moon over the trees. Graphic by Cassandra Matthews.

Cassandra Matthews ~ Assistant Editor

     The Claytor Nature Center is home to the Belk Astronomical Observatory, and work done there furthers the discoveries of the NASA Solar System Ambassador program.

     The NASA Solar System Ambassadors (SSA) website page describes the program by saying, “The NASA Solar System Ambassadors program is a public engagement effort that works with motivated volunteers across the nation to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries with the people in their communities.”

     Trish Cerulli is one of those motivated volunteers. She said, “I became an SSA in Jan. 2021, after hearing about it last year from one of our dedicated docents, Ray Bradley. As the Outreach Coordinator for the Belk Observatory, much of my work there is already aligned with the mission of the SSA program, so I was happy to be selected as a volunteer SSA for NASA! I am the only SSA serving in the Lynchburg, Va., area, and I hope to be able to visit local libraries, scout troops, campus events, and other Lynchburg community opportunities to spread the word about space science and Belk Observatory!”

     Ray Bradley further explained the program. “We are basically a group of volunteers who are familiar with NASA programs and enjoy teaching the public about them,” he began. “We also serve as a local conduit for requests for information about NASA. Being a NASA Solar System Ambassador gives us access to training such as webinars with mission specialists and educational materials that facilitate our public outreach. Trish Cerulli and I are the only SSAs currently involved with the University of Lynchburg. Trish is the Outreach Coordinator for the Claytor Nature Center and I am a volunteer at the Belk Observatory.”

     Continuing, Bradley said, “During the pandemic, public events at the Belk Observatory have become a primary avenue to conduct outreach for the Solar System Ambassador program in this region. This situation will improve over the next few months as restrictions are mitigated and more events are scheduled at libraries and parks around the area. And hopefully in the fall, schools will return to normal operations which include Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) events that have provided many outreach opportunities in the past.”

     Bradley discussed the duties of the SSA volunteers. “Part of the responsibility of a Solar System Ambassador is to post outreach events on the SSA website which then can be searched geographically by the public,” he said. “In fact, to maintain SSA status, each ambassador must conduct a minimum of four outreach events per year. Even with the pandemic, I have managed to give several presentations on various NASA programs such as the Curiosity, Perseverance, and InSight missions on Mars. During public events at the observatory, Trish and I often include information about these and other NASA programs which then qualifies the event under the SSA program. All of these outreach opportunities help to meet the mission of the SSA program to educate and excite the public about the science, exploration, and discoveries credited to the dedicated work of the phenomenal team at NASA and funded by the American taxpayer.”

     One thing that NASA has recently started working on is putting people back on the moon. “Bill Nelson, the current director of NASA who was appointed by President Biden and recently confirmed by the Senate, recommitted NASA toward the goal of returning people to the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program,” explained Bradley. 

     He continued, “NASA chose the name Artemis for the successor program to the Apollo Lunar Landing program because in Greek mythology, she was the twin sister of Apollo and because this mission will include the first woman to land on the moon. However, unlike the Apollo program which consisted of 6 short visits to the moon, under the Artemis program NASA intends to stay indefinitely to develop the science and engineering needed for human exploration of Mars and beyond. As 2024 approaches, you can expect more of the public interest and our SSA outreach programs to focus on the exciting progress of Artemis.”

     Bradley concluded, “In the meantime, NASA has a few other programs we can explore during our outreach events such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the Parker Solar Probe, the Juno mission recently arrived at Jupiter, commercial space flight support, research at the International Space Station, OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, the launch of Lucy and Psyche missions to explore asteroids, the continuing discoveries of the Voyager and New Horizon deep space probes, and so much more!”

     To find out more about the SSA program, please visit https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/solar-system-ambassadors/events/.

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