A new observatory is opening up the wonders of the heavens to students at North Medford High School and has inspired several to apply to universities where they can pursue astronomy.
Built last spring for $15,000, the three-telescope building features a peaked roof that slides back, opening the cosmos to telescopes in the 10-to 12-inch diameter range. The facility augments the school's planetarium, which was built when the school went up in 1967.
Students such as Garrick Gilbert may take astronomy in their junior year, then do semester-long projects as seniors that usually involve astro-photography, linking telescopes to a digital camera.
"I'm photographing and describing the Messier objects visible in the Northern Hemisphere, about 40 of them," says Gilbert, referring to the list of fascinating astronomical features complied by Frenchman Charles Messier in 1771.
"I was going to try for all 110 Messier objects," he says. "It's possible but very difficult."
"It's amazing we actually get to have an observatory to do this in," says Zach Demaree, who is measuring the magnitude of the variable star Betelgeuse.
Senior Daniel Lion, in the meantime, is taking similar measurements of Algol in the Perseus constellation, while Michael Guevara is mapping the visible mountains and mares (seas) of the moon.
Kendra Straub, who is doing a study of nighttime urban light pollution and its impact on animals and humans — it's suspected of suppressing melatonin and REM sleep — says, "This observatory and program ... have opened my eyes to a possible career in astronomy. I hope to go to college at University of Hawaii, near the Keck Observatory."
"This observatory is a longtime dream of ours," says teacher Robert Black, head of North's astronomy program for 16 years. "We had telescopes but we had to get lots of trucks and drive them to a remote, dark location, a very difficult field trip — and only three students could do projects. Now we come here any time it's clear, and I can turn off all the campus lights, and we have nine students doing projects."
The astronomy program is highly accessible now, and it is stimulating excitement for all the sciences and prompting students to enroll in college astronomy, astrophysics or some allied field, says Black.
Anamika Brouwer, who is composing music to accompany a visual tour of the galaxy — with photos she snapped — plans to study aerospace engineering or astro-photography at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.
"I've loved the idea of space and stars since I was 2, and it was boosted when I got a bedroom planetarium at age 5," says Brouwer. "I feel so privileged to work in this observatory. I'm living my dream."
Student Kaylee Saunders is studying and photographing the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, with special focus on Titan, the most Earth-like of all other bodies in our solar system. She plans to make her project into a lecture for elementary schools and wants to enter the astronomy program at the University of Oregon.
"Astronomy is a science but very different from science," says Saunders. "It's so interesting to know what's in the universe. It's really big. It blows my mind how many billions of galaxies are out there."
The observatory was built with grants from the Carpenter Foundation and the Murdoch Trust of Vancouver, Wash., and money from the Medford School District. The telescopes were donated by local people and mounted on vibration-proof concrete pillars.
"I see a lot of positive influence on the kids here," says longtime volunteer assistant astronomer Dave Bloomsness. "It's changing lives. I fell in love with astronomy the first time I lived where it was dark and I saw the lights above me. I came to recognize the sky and know I'm always among friends there."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.