Students are Looking Up at WMS

Ben Moss, Director of Technology
Learn about the recent astrophotography work of WMS students!
By Ben Moss, Director of Technology 
A little over a year ago, Ben Moss, Technology Director and faculty advisor of the astronomy club at The White Mountain School heard about a new project at The Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation ( NKAF was in the process of completing their new facility, the Northern Skies Observatory (NSO) in Peacham, VT. This observatory is only 35 minutes from the WMS campus and is the home of a 17 inch Planewave CDK telescope capable of taking some amazing, deep sky images. Over the past 12 months Ben has been trained in the use of the equipment at NSO and has established himself as one of the docent teachers at NKAF. WMS is now one of ten NKAF affiliated schools. Last Spring, Ben proposed the idea of teaching an astronomy course in the Fall 2011 and was encouraged to make this happen. In addition, WMS was generously given an 8 inch Meade SCT telescope by a neighbor from Franconia, Jenny Deupree. Thanks Jenny!
This semester, WMS students have been busy learning the fundamentals of astronomical science.  Their work culminated recently in a visit to NSO to do some observing and CCD imaging in a process known as astrophotography.  On a clear, cold, dark December night, eleven students left campus to visit NSO. Everyone was very excited aabout being able to see some of the amazing sights in the night sky for themselves. When we arrived we were welcomed by the President of NKAF, David Magnus, who gave us a brief tour before letting us take the controls. From 8:00pm until past midnight our students enjoyed controlling the telescope, the rotation of the dome and the CCD Camera, all of which are state-of-the-art pieces of equipment. In addition to the telescope under the observatory dome, there is a 12 inch Dobsonian telescope which we brought outside and used to view Jupiter and it’s moons as well as the Andromeda Galaxy. Students had previously been divided into teams of two or three and had come prepared, having studied their star charts to see which celestial objects would be visible over the course of the evening. Students used advanced software programs such as The SkyX and MaximDL to locate and capture images of their celestial subjects. Targets included The Horsehead Nebula, The Orion Nebula, The Triangulum Galaxy, a double cluster of stars between Perseus and Cassiopea, The Crab Nebula, Bodes Galaxy (which was not named after Bode Miller), The Andromeda Galaxy, a nebula known as Thor’s Helmet or NGC2359, and the brightly visible Pleiades.

Students took four images of each object using red, green, blue and clear color filters, with exposure times varying between one minute and five minutes. Each image returned was in 16 bit gray-scale format. These gray-scale images were then brought back to campus where the class worked in Adobe Photoshop to combine them and to create a color image. When students were finally able to see the images they had taken in glorious full color they were astounded by their beauty and proud at having accomplished their semester-long goal of being able to do this type of work themselves. The class has another trip to NSO planned to do some more imaging, and they are super excited to see what else they can produce. Even after the semester is over, the astronomy club will continue to use the NSO facility to do scientific research and create images of an amazing variety of celestial gems. Keep an eye on our Picasa gallery to see what is going on here at WMS, and, as the late astronomer ‘Star Gazer’ Jack Horkheimer used to say, “Keep Looking Up!”

Take a look at more student-produced images from this field trip.

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