Upper School

Students Use Tower Hill's Observatory to Photograph the Night Skies

Taking a good photo has gotten easier and easier thanks to the ever-increasing quality of phone cameras. Still, capturing a great shot of a celestial object in the night sky remains a challenging feat. 
 
Stars, planets and nebulas are faint and unfathomingly far away. Clouds and light pollution hinder views. Not to mention, the earth moves as cameras take very long exposures, resulting in blurry images.
 
Tower Hill students are learning this and more in the Upper School’s Astrophotography Club, utilizing the Wuerstle Family Telescope in the DeSantis Family Observatory. The images on these pages of the moon and the Orion Nebula are two of the first examples of their work, taken by James Li ‘19 with assistance from Hudson Pepper ‘18, Joseph Pinto ‘19 and Noah Wang ‘20.

“These two pictures demonstrate the potential of this observatory,” Li said. “And although they are far from perfect, I am hoping that next year we can do a lot more.” 
 
Li is a talented scenic photographer with experience using a home telescope as a boy in China. The international student, who started at Tower Hill in 2015, emerged as a natural leader for the club, delving into the technical difficulties of researching, calibrating and using various lenses, filters and other equipment. 
 
A major obstacle this year was figuring out how to track an object in synchrony with the telescope. Taking astronomical photographs requires a long exposure because the light visible is very, very weak. Some of the galaxies the students endeavor to photograph are hundreds of millions of light years away, so the light reaching the telescope is miniscule. 

But waiting for hours on end for the exposure means the earth is also spinning. So club members figured out how to sync the equipment properly and then take many, many pictures to layer on top of each other. Thousands of pictures. 
 
“You take one picture and you say, ‘I can’t hardly see anything,’” said science teacher Tom Hoch, the club’s faculty advisor along with photography and art teacher John Bartlett. “But when you take a thousand pictures and you layer them on top of each other, then it becomes very clear.” 
 
The undertaking requires patience, painstaking attention to detail, willingness to wait for hours at school late at night—and the ability to convince faculty members to open the facility when weather and astronomical conditions are just right. The club is not for everyone. 
“It’s a small group of kids, but they’re into it,” Hoch said. “I think that this is something where now that we have the equipment, next year it might be much more popular.” 
 
For Li, the club is as much about science and technology as it is about leadership. He readily admits that he is not a fan of group work—and the distractions and disagreements that can come with it. But coordinating club logistics, collaborating with peers on a shared interest, taking ownership of problem-solving, and finally, seeing results, has been worth it. 
 
“By just organizing and leading this club, I realize that it is not easy,” Li said. “It’s hard work, but I think the efforts may pay off—not right now because I have not gotten pictures that I am 100 percent satisfied with—but in the future.”
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