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Getting ahead, in the clouds
A Hall County native gets a special chance to study the Milky Way galaxy
Nicki Varsel, a 2006 graduate of Johnson High School and rising junior at Reinhardt College, learns how to line up a telescope so she can measure wave frequencies properly.


Gainesville native Nicki Varsel talks about her trip in May to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va.

Nicki Varsel has a new appreciation of the stars.

The Gainesville native and 2006 Johnson High School graduate took astronomy on a lark during the first semester of her sophomore year at Reinhardt College in Waleska.

"The chemistry and biology classes were full, so I thought I would take astronomy and get my sciences out of the way," said the 19-year-old. "I had never taken an astronomy class in my life."

She got hooked, though, jumping at the chance to take a one-week intensive course in radio astronomy in May at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va.

"I went really not expecting to learn what I learned in a week, because the (first-semester class) was just way over my head," she said.

Under the instruction of physics professor David Moore, Varsel and 11 classmates, including Amber Loggins of Dawsonville, measured the atomic hydrogen emissions from the plane of the Milky Way galaxy.

They collected 14 hours of data by looking in different directions around the plane of the galaxy,

And from the data, students were able to confirm the shape and direction of rotation of the Milky Way.

"We were doing stuff on telescopes, measuring wave frequencies and learning about the Milky Way, and I actually ended up learning a lot more than I expected," Varsel said.

The work and the pace were difficult.

"You were very pressed for time to get your projects done," she said. "There were two groups and each group had to take turns going to the telescope to measure wave frequencies and observe the Milky Way.

"You had to get your data in a certain time and if you didn't have it, then it messed up the other group whenever they went to the telescope."

Founded in 1956, the observatory provides the most up-to-date telescopes for use by the international scientific community. It is funded by the National Science Foundation as part of an agreement with Associated Universities Inc., a science management corporation.

The observatory operates what it says is the world's most sensitive single-dish radio telescope and observatory officials are teaming up with Canada and Mexico in the construction of what is described on its Web site,, as the "next-generation, centimeter-wavelength telescope."

The Reinhardt group stayed at the observatory in quarters that were similar to dormitory living, Varsel said.

The group was surrounded "by all kinds of different sizes of telescopes, all over the place," she said. "We got to go up on some of them and see how they were made."

One of the more interesting aspects of the trip was when the group sat down and talked with an astronomer, Varsel said.

"He gave us a small presentation of what he was doing there and showed us some of the stuff he was looking at," Varsel said.

Varsel, who resumes classes at Reinhardt on Aug. 26, is a business management major.

She doesn't expect to pursue astronomy as a part of a career - her interest lies in corporate event planning - or as a hobby. But she said she won't forget the trip to the observatory.

"I actually know the placement of some of the stars now and it made me appreciate (astronomy) more," Varsel said.

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