Experiences: Astrophysics Students Visit the Aardvark Observatory

The students in Miles Chen’s astrophysics class enjoyed a trimester immersed in studying the stars, which culminated in a recent field trip to the Aardvark Observatory.

Two such students, Sam and Izzy ’14, shared about their experience at and after the class trip to the Aardvark Observatory.

“We went to Gary and Cynthia Bengier’s,” Izzy said. “Cynthia Bengier is a member of the Board of Trustees, and Blake ’15 is a Bay student. They have a house in Groveland, California with an observatory – the Aardvark Observatory.” There, the class spent Saturday through Monday observing and documenting the sky using two different telescopes.  “They have a really large telescope in the dome of the observatory” Izzy began, “so we used that to take pictures of galaxies and nebulas. There’s a smaller telescope that you can look through; we looked at Jupiter, its moons, [our] moon and other stars.”

Though the class’ hope of seeing “a lot of really cool stuff” was immediately fulfilled as class members took turns looking through the smaller telescope, the larger goal of creating crystal clear images of the night sky had to wait till regular class was back in session.

Sam explained the process step by step: “We used the program MaxImDL to combine the images [from the large telescope]. It was a very complicated process, but we basically stacked a bunch of short exposures together to get an image with more detail. We created an RGB (color) image and then an image for the luminance out of all the short exposures. Then we combined those two images and brought out some of the color and contrast in Photoshop.”

In other words, “You take around 30 pictures of the same thing and [the software] compiles it all together so you can get all the dust and interference out, which makes it as pretty as possible,” Izzy summed up.

Of the many images the class created, Sam described a few final products:

“[This] image is of the Horsehead Nebula.” 

“[This] image (M 101) is of the Pinwheel Galaxy.”

“[This is an] image of M81. It doesn’t really have a nickname, but the M is short for Messier. It’s one of the Messier objects, a group of objects documented by the astronomer Charles Messier.”

These awe-inspiring images, products of these students’ time and hard work, serve as a reminder not  only of The Bay School’s precept to “value the earth, our home,” but also to remember what lies beyond it. So, at the close of one trimester and the start of another, students came away with beautiful results and a better sense of their place in the universe.

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