BY Amanda A. Taylor

EDINBURG – All eyes were on the skies as stargazers and space geeks alike gathered at the UTRGV H-E-B Planetarium on the Edinburg Campus on Wednesday to catch a glimpse of Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn.

The university had anticipated about 200 people, but almost 500 gathered at the Planetarium for the community event. Attractions included several short films about space presented inside the Planetarium, and a special lecture by Dr. John Gerling, which included an “explosion” using warm water and liquid nitrogen.

“It is important to inform the public and community about science issues to spark interest and curiosity in kids, who will become our next scientists,” said Dr. Cristina Villalobos, professor in the UTRGV School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in STEM Education. “Science is all around us, and many times we can conduct experiments with simple tools to assist our understanding.”

The UTRGV Planetarium hosts starwatching events every Tuesday with free telescope viewings, but this event was special due to a partnership with community leaders Dr. John Gerling from Gerling Orthodontics in McAllen, and H-E-B, who provided free hotdogs, chips, snacks and drinks during the event.

“Tonight is extra special because H-E-B wanted to thank all volunteers for their work helping recent flood victims,” said Yvonne Loflin, H-E-B public affairs specialist for the border region. “We wanted to come out tonight and bless the community with some free food and this is just another way to get the community aware of this beautiful place.”

At 9 p.m., once the sun had set and the stars began to sparkle, three massive telescopes were rolled out into the courtyard so visitors could get a good view of the planets. Although it was a bit overcast, lines of people formed, waiting to use the telescopes.

Bobby Ray Lemons, 11, of Mission was super excited about space gazing.

Bobby Ray Lemons

‘I’ve never seen the moon this close before!

“I’ve never seen the moon this close before!” he said. “I was trying to look at Venus – it looks like a little bright dot!”

Madeline and Hailey Cantu, of Raymondville, both clad in outer space T-shirts, said getting to see the planets up close was both fun and a little overwhelming.

“I’m excited to see these planets for the first time; I’m actually shaken up knowing I’m going to see them,” said Madeline, 11. “My favorite planet is Mercury because I did a project about it in the third grade and I got to learn all about it.”

Their dad, Martin Cantu, said people are curious about the mysteries of space and so many showed up because of the access to the telescopes the university was offering.

“It’s important for kids like my daughters to have access to this and be around it,” he said. “I’m sure all their friends will see their photos on Snapchat and want to come out to check it out.”

The UTRGV H-E-B Planetarium is open to the public for planet observations from 9-10 p.m. each Tuesday, and the facility is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday with extended hours till 10 p.m. on Tuesdays.

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The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) Planetarium including the UTRGV Portable Planetarium serves the rapidly growing, international, multicultural Rio Grande Valley community. The Planetarium creates, promotes, and disseminates learning and educational experiences through utilizing digitally enhanced visualization technology, surround sound and other innovative specialized equipment.

The Planetarium interactively motivates and attracts youth as well as the entire family and our community toward education by capturing their imagination while educationally exploring our Universe through a wide range of disciplines including but not limited to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The visualization laboratory provided by the Planetarium enhances University student learning outcomes through a variety of educational areas and disciplines preparing them for lifelong learning and leadership roles in the state, nation and world community.