After two weeks of unstable weather conditions, the astrophysics and astronomy classes could finally observe the planets and stars thanks to a clear sky. The students were very excited when at 8 p.m. they received the confirmation via email that they would go to the observatory.
The check-in at 9 p.m. upsets many students. Only on very few occasions are exceptions made. One of them is the visit to the observatory by the astronomy and astrophysics classes. Last week the astrophysics and astronomy classes finally went to the Grainger observatory.
About 25 young men and women marched after check-in with red torches through the dark campus. Why red torches? Where they planning some kind of close alien interaction? Well, unfortunately not. The reason is very simple: when using torches that emit white light, the pupils expand, making it difficult for the young astronomers to see the stars. With red light, the effect is not as great.
The Observatory is located close to the soccer field next to the lake. It takes about 10 minutes to get there from the Dining Hall.
At night, many mosquitos fly around which forced everybody to wear long trousers and to use a lot of bug spray.
The Grainger Observatory is formed by three domed observatories and a class building. This is divided into a classroom with a Harkness table, a small kitchen and a big room filled with various telescopes, each one having an individual use.
The first night Dr. Jerry LaSala and Nathaniel Peters guided us through the sky. They showed us for instance where the different planets are located and which stars we find in the different constellations. We got familiar with several constellations such as the Big and the Little Dipper, the Northern Cross or the Summer Triangle. The weather was so good that at a certain point several students started a challenge: who could find the most satellites flying through the skies? We returned to our dorms at 11 p.m.
The following night we visited the observatory again. This time though, we used the telescopes. The telescope inside the domed observatory can track a certain star or planet and follow it depending on the rotation of the earth. On that night, it was pointing towards Saturn and we were all able to see the rings.
“I was so excited when I saw Saturn,” said Joly Bercow from the Modern Astrophysics course, “I had never looked through a telescope before.” Afterwards it was pointed towards double stars. The location of the observatory is excellent, since it is not surrounded by any buildings, except for some high trees in the west that impeded the view of Jupiter from the doomed observatory.
Therefore, the teachers gave us one of the portable telescopes to observe Jupiter and its moons. Recently NASA sent up a satellite that is orbiting Jupiter now and taking close-ups of the surface of the planet. Since we had looked at the pictures of the space mission in class, many students were keen on seeing the planet with their own eyes.
Not many high schools can offer such an experience to their students; this makes Exeter and the courses unique.
All in all, many students describe the nights at the observatory as one of the highpoints of their courses because they finally get to see what they talked about in class.