The Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation (NKAF) was honored to teach at a Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Winter Weekend in February at Goddard College. The astrophotography immersion weekend helped GIV reach its goal of delivering in-depth STEM training to young people from high schools throughout Vermont, and it included a trip to Northern Skies Observatory (NSO) in Peacham for a hands-on star party using the main 17 inch telescope for digital imaging of deep space objects.
The ten high school participants from across the state also ventured out into the cold night to observe, using portable telescopes and high-powered binoculars. Many of them started with little astronomy experience, but they all left with new technical knowledge and appreciation for nature.
Students began the weekend with a movement exercise reminding them how objects like the Sun, Earth and Moon travel in space and the implications that movement has for imaging. This led to discussions on how telescopes track to follow objects, enabling them to collect enough light through the long exposure times needed for dim objects, and how magnifying objects that appear small affects the tracking and exposure. Saturday saw them reviewing optics concepts involved in astrophotography, including focal length and ratio, aperture and image scale.
Next they moved on to the high tech equipment by studying the telescope’s CCD camera system and the facility’s robotic capability. They studied which objects could be imaged at this time of year in northern Vermont utilizing tools such as planispheres.
Finally, students generated a list of objects that interested them using a free star map program called Stellarium, a website that allows for searching deep space objects, and a poster of Messier objects. In addition to the class time and field trip, NKAF staff also led a workshop on the recent supernova including understanding the different types, their elemental make up and how NSO can study them.
The skies fortuitously cleared on Saturday night, and the group travelled from Goddard to Peacham. There, students took turns controlling the main telescope, guided by NKAF President Bill Vinton, to image the objects on their list. Many of them braved the frigid temperature in hats, coats and gloves to venture out onto NSO ‘s lawn with one of the observatory’s best portable telescopes and a set of high powered binoculars.
NKAF educator Brad Vietje led a tour of the sky using a green laser pointer. Finally students made good use of their time waiting for their three, five-minute exposures to complete by exploring NKAF’s astronomy library and reading from a book on black holes.
The final astrophotography lesson involved processing images. Students first utilized the freeware program ImageJ on a regular color photo to practice image stretching, stacking and color adjustments. Then they used the processing techniques learned over the weekend to produce truly beautiful images from the astrophotographs captured the previous night.
Finally, they prepared a presentation that they delivered on Sunday for their families. The theater was filled with wonder as parents saw the celestial images projected and heard the students describe their exciting and highly educational weekend.
Northern Skies Observatory is located on a hill behind the Peacham Elementary School and features one of the newest and most high tech telescopes in the state. It can be operated remotely by participating teachers in addition to on-site interactive operation. Hands-on, inquiry-based learning using astronomy is also offered in after school programs and camps, which provide a safe and enriching environment for young people while their parents are working.
A newly formed astronomy club meets around the time of the new moon each month at the observatory. Astronomy enthusiasts of all skill levels are welcome. For more information, call (802) 592-3057 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
NKAF has scheduled a series of Open Houses on the second Saturday of each month (4/12, 5/10 and 6/14) from 1 – 4PM at NSO. Visitors are welcome to tour the state of the art observatory to see a demo of the main telescope and Ash Dome, as well as the collection of portable telescopes. Weather permitting, guests will also be able to use a Lunt solar telescope for daytime observation of the Sun.
The Governor’s Institutes provides summer and winter immersion learning opportunities for students in many subjects. Summer 2014 Institutes have openings now! Visit www.giv.org for a list of topics and how to apply.