Searching for a New Planet

When a parent asks their children they learned in school that day, it is not common that the response is, “We are working to discover a new planet.” What?!?

That is exactly what the students in science teacher David Friedlander-Holm’s Astronomy and Stellar Astrophysics class are doing each day with the resources that have been shared with Bay by the Tuolumne Skies Observatory. Thanks to the generosity of the Bengier family (Blake ‘15),  who built the observatory in 2007, Bay has an exclusive partnership that allows our students to remotely and robotically operate the telescopes at the observatory and so view the skies at any time.

Known for his bow ties and booming voice, David brings a giddy enthusiasm and love of all things outer-space to the classroom, so it’s no wonder why a planet search is part of his curriculum. Although David hasn’t been able to take his students out to the observatory as much has DSC_0017he would have liked this year due to the El Niño conditions, he has been able to focus more on teaching the basics of how to operate the telescopes remotely and robotically. His goal is for the students to operate this extraordinary piece of equipment without his supervision, to be completely self-reliant in its operation. “The students are learning things at 14 and 16 [years old] that I learned my first year out of college. So they will be GOING to college as experts,” and are clearly on the path to becoming astronomers.

Now back to this whole finding a planet thing…

bay2016-91 (3)David, who used to manage the astronomy lab at the American University in Washington D.C. (and who still hopes be an astronaut one day), says, “The mid-term goal for this class is to find an extrasolar planet. This telescope has the ability to do it so our students have the ability to find a planet…which would be SO COOL!”  With a greater focus on astronomy than astrophysics for this particular project, David is honing the students’ skills of how to refine their observation techniques so they know where and how to look for a new planet. And although they haven’t found their planet just yet, they are capturing some spectacular images of dense star fields, ring nebulae, horsehead nebulae, crab nebulae, Jupiter, Earth’s Moon, and much more.

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Beyond searching for a new planet, David hopes to start a summer program in 2017. “In late August [2017], there will be a total solar eclipse across the entire United States, from Oregon to South Carolina,  and astronomy will be big in the news. It would be great to have Bay students, as well as some 7th- and 8th- graders, out at the observatory for 3 or 5 weeks learning all about astronomy and witnessing this historical event!” David’s excitement for the cosmos is contagious and we look forward to reporting back once our students have discovered Planet Bay!