Zack Stockbridge

Zack Stockbridge, an astronomy instructor at Southwestern Community College, observes the total solar eclipse from Chile. SCC will offer free solar telescope viewing of the transit of Mercury on Nov. 11 on campus.

Zack Stockbridge says he has always been fascinated by the heavens.

This month, the Southwestern Community College astronomy instructor is hoping to share that passion with others across the country through an educational effort to measure the earth’s distance from the sun during a rare celestial event.

From 7:30 a.m. until shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, the planet Mercury will cross directly in front of the sun – a pathway known as the “Transit of Mercury” (ToM). Stockbridge has organized a network of stargazers at widely varying points across North America to simultaneously photograph the event.

Photos taken at SCC along with those taken elsewhere will be used to calculate one astronomical unit – the average distance between the earth and sun. The nationwide citizen science project has been named “CitizenToM.”

Throughout the event, solar telescopes will be set up on the SCC campus. The public will be invited to view Mercury’s transit in front of the sun while Stockbridge and SCC physics and astronomy instructor Matt Cass – along with SCC students – participate in the project by taking photos at pre-arranged moments.

“This project has been rolling around in my mind since right after the total solar eclipse of 2017,” Stockbridge said. “It’s a fun educational project rather than data collection for scientific research.”

At 9:30 a.m., Cass will offer a presentation on “An Introduction to Solar Basics,” which will be followed by an opportunity to view the “Maximum Transient Observation” moment at 10:20 a.m.

The last such transit was in May 2016, and the next won’t happen until November of 2032.

At 2 p.m., Stockbridge will offer a professional development for teachers on the topic of “ToM Citizen Science” in which he’ll demonstrate how teachers can use the ToM data.

The viewing event at SCC is dependent on clear skies and good weather. A final decision will be made by Sunday, and announced on SCC’s website (www.southwesterncc.edu) and social media pages on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

SCC added astronomy classes to its curriculum after becoming the only community college in the nation to enter a cooperative science agreement with NASA in 2015.

“Our association with NASA has opened many doors for our students to engage in science,” said Cass, who oversees the Smoky Mountain STEM Collaborative that was created as part of the partnership with NASA.

For more information about Monday’s solar telescope viewing, or to learn more about SCC’s partnership with NASA, contact Cass at 339-4384 or mcass@southwesterncc.edu.