Opening Young Eyes

LAYTON – Northridge High School boasts what is probably the first on-campus astronomical observatory of any such school in Utah. If math teacher and amateur astronomer Wayne Sumner has his way, it won’t be the last.

Nightly News sat in on Sumner’s astronomy class on Monday. Students discussed concepts such as the state of the universe in the first instants of the Big Bang, and answered questions that few amateur star-gazers could off the tops of their heads: Minimum size of a star needed to produce a black hole? Distance that light travels in a second?

After class, Sumner showed the observatory. First he had to maneuver a 22-inch-diameter Dobsonian telescope out of the building, where it is stored, and onto the patio that would be shaded by the roof when the roof rolls off the building.

[Wayne Sumner moves Dobsonian Telescope out of the new Northrop Grumman Observatory]

Davis School District and the high school launched the observatory on May 28, winding up a year of construction on the cinder-block building. Its centerpiece is an 800-pound, 12-inch diameter telescope built by Japan’s Nishimura Factory, valued at $50,000. The instrument was the gift of Kaysville businessman David Derrick, who was upgrading his own observatory.

“The idea of an observatory first came into my mind shortly after I was told a telescope was going to be donated to our school by David Derrick,” Sumner said. That was in the fall of 2006. The great instrument with its heavy base was far too massive to set up for every star party.

He approached Steve Mangel, then science curriculum coordinator for the school district (now retired), looking for a way to build a permanent home for it. The district “had been getting donations yearly from Northrop Grumman,” the aerospace contractor. Mangel met with the Northrop Grumman Foundation and won financing for the observatory, which is named after the company.

Sumner and other planners came up with a design for a structure whose roof rolls off onto adjacent supports. An unusual feature is that instead of the typical wire-and-pulley system to move the roof, the observatory uses the type of rollers that move school bleachers.

[Rollers move the roof off and back]

The project is nearly complete. The telescope’s pier is mounted on a concrete base, the ‘scope towers above the equatorial mount, an adjacent control room stands ready, and several large Dobsonian telescopes are also available for student use. A CCD camera will begin making astrophotos once the Derrick telescope is hooked up to computerized guiding equipment.

[Sumner connects CCD astrophotography camera to the 12-inch-diameter David Derrick Telescope. Photos by Joe Bauman]

Sumner says success or failure can be judged in ten years. If other schools have built observatories by then, it will prove the value of this pioneer project.

“It’s so exciting, so exhilarating, and yet so scary all at the same time,” he says. “If I mess that up, if that observatory starts getting cobwebs, they’ll never be another one in this state.”

The point of the project is to open young eyes to the wonders of the universe. Even if students don’t eventually graduate to astronomy as an academic pursuit, career or hobby, they will make the connection between wonder and discovery. The jolt that comes with seeing Saturn, hanging still and lovely in the midst of blackness, will never leave them. They will know, feel with their hearts, that science is not some abstract idea but a way to appreciate beauty and a technique to begin unraveling vast mysteries.

Sumner is eager to help other schools with astronomy projects, and welcomes visits to the observatory. Teachers and administrators may contact him at Northridge, 801-402-8500, or by email at wsumner@dsdmail.net.

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