SKY & TELESCOPE MAGAZINE
Great American Eclipse Tour at UTSI
By: Barbara Birdsong
The Sky & Telescope Magazine’s Great American Eclipse Tour group visited the
University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) on Saturday, August 19 to tour the new solar
observatory and to hear lectures. Over 100 tourists representing 5 nations and 21 US states,
ranging in ages from an 11 year old from Scottsdale, AZ to an 87 year old from Hollywood, CA,
heard talks about why it is hard to get to space, how the sun works, why we study it and how
the desire of a childhood dream came to reality.
Mrs. Carole Thomas, UTSI Stem Manager, who was instrumental in coordinating and
securing funds to build the new solar observatory at UTSI, welcomed guests.
Dr. Mark Whorton, Executive Director of UTSI, addressed the audience and gave a
presentation entitled, “Why all the fuss about getting to orbit?” Whorton discussed the rocket
equation and the challenges of getting into orbit.
Dr. Lionel Crews, Director of Chemistry & Physics at UT Martin, gave a prologue to solar
astrophysics with his presentation, “The Sun in 20 Minutes or Less”. Crews showed a slide
about the layers of the sun and discussed the corona, the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun.
“The Sun’s corona extends millions of kilometers into space and is most easily seen during a total
solar eclipse,” said Crews. He discussed why the sun is so hot; how solar activity effects the
Earth’s climate; solar flares effect on human space exploration; and predicting solar weather.
Guests viewed the sun through a telescope in the new solar observatory where graduate
research assistants (GRA), Katrina Sweetland and Andrew Broadbent demonstrated how the
telescope operated. GRA Adam Croft controlled a telescope outside the observatory that
allowed participants to view the sun, also.
Dr. James Spann, Chief Scientist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, gave the
keynote address, “2017 Eclipse across America through the Eyes of NASA”. “To study the sun’s
corona, scientists create special spacecraft instruments called coronagraphs to block the sun’s
visible light, but total eclipses provide the best possible observations of the corona in visible
light,” said Spann. He went on to say, “Total solar eclipses also provide an opportunity to study
Earth under uncommon conditions. The sudden blocking of the sun during an eclipse reduces
light and temperature on the ground and these quick-changing conditions can affect weather,
vegetation and animal behavior.”
The final keynote speaker was Dr. Gary Flandro, UTSI Professor Emeritus and Chief
Scientist at Gloyer-Taylor Labs. Flandro spoke about his discovery of the multi-planet “Grand
Tour” mission opportunity that utilized gravity assist on the Voyager to explore the four major
outer planets of the solar system. Flandro charted the route of the Voyager Spacecraft for the
“Grand Tour”. He suggested application of the “gravity assist” method for gaining free energy in
a planet flyby, thus greatly reducing the flight time. Flandro’s work has supported decades of
space flight and has led to successful missions to outer planets. Flandro was the holder of the
Boling Chair of Excellence in Space Propulsion at UTSI before his retirement in 2006.
The editor of Sky & Telescope Magazine took photos and interviewed all the speakers,
which will soon appear in their magazine.
Dr. Gary Flandro displays the multi-planet “Grand Tour” mission opportunity that utilized gravity assist
on the Voyager to explore the four major outer planets of the solar system while being interviewed by
Sky & Telescope Magazine. Photo by: Laura Horton