Montana State University Astronomy Days

Students from Monforton School in Four Corners look up to sun using darkened paper shades during the MSU Astronomy Days at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Saturday, Sept. 21, before Charles Kankelborg, MSU associate professor of physics, gives a lesson on the sun to the public in an attempt to break the Guinness world record for the largest astronomy lesson given.

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The sun is about a million times bigger than Earth.

That's a fact hundreds of people learned Saturday during an attempt to break a Guinness World Record for the largest astronomy lesson ever.

“To begin with, the sun is a star,” Montana State University physics professor Charles Kankelborg told the crowd at Bobcat Stadium. “Maybe just close your eyes and imagine a starry sky. Focus on two stars in that star field that you see in your mind. One of them is a bright blue star. The other star is less remarkable. It's more yellow. It has less mass and it lives a long time because it's a slow burning star… That's our sun.”

The other star, the blue star, is hotter than the sun, but it's farther away and it won't burn as long, eventually exploding as a supernova, he said.

Kankelborg taught his 40-minute lesson, “The Sun: What is it, and why does it matter,” from a stage on the football field while parents, children and other students-for-the-day packed the bleachers.

To break the record, more than 526 people needed to be present for the entire lesson. The previous record was set earlier this year at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Organizers won't know if they've succeeded for a while. A photographer took pictures of the lesson and will work with Guinness World Records representatives to count the attendees.

Renn Meuwissen, 13, and Owen Burroughs, 12, came to the astronomy lesson with Meuwissen's dad.

Meuwissen said learning that Vikings used Iceland spar crystals to tell time using the sun was the coolest part of the astronomy lesson.

Burroughs was on the edge of his seat, too.

“I really was interested by the solar surface when he was talking about the sun spots and the corona,” he said. “That was cool.”

The potentially record-breaking lesson was part of the first Montana Science and Engineering Festival. With more than 40 demonstration booths, festival-goers watched robots wrestle, launched pop-bottle rockets and raced through a model of the solar system.

“The whole idea here is we're really just trying to create a fun event for the community to know what's going on at MSU and to realize that there's science and engineering in everything we do everyday,” said Angela Des Jardins, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

The festival is expected to become an annual event and was funded with a grant from the consortium. Des Jardins said only 12 communities across the nation received similar grants.

“It's a big honor for us,” she said.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com. She is on Twitter at @amandaricker.

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