Far out! Observatory on high school campus offers young minds a chance to aim high

Space discovery doesn’t have to be from atop a mountain by professional researchers.
Published: May. 11, 2023 at 3:39 PM HST|Updated: May. 11, 2023 at 5:06 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Space discovery doesn’t have to be from atop a mountain by professional researchers.

On Oahu, it can come from the roof of a Hawaii high school — and soon, by students.

Nearly a year since the state Department of Education unveiled its first research-grade space observatory at Waipahu High School, staff are testing the telescope and software and getting it ready for students to use.

They hope to have students using the equipment this fall.

“The first time I saw Jupiter through a telescope on a dinky little tube, reflector telescope as the most magnificent feeling in the world, realizing that the picture isn’t just a picture, it’s a thing,” said Justin Bergonio, lead teacher for the new Waipahu High School McInerny Foundation Research Observatory.

The foundation donated more than $200,000 for the structure, which was installed last year.

“The telescope itself has a 17-inch mirror, pretty big size mirror,” Bergonio said.

“And eventually I think it reflects and bounces off into this little guy here, which is the CCD camera. And so this kind of acts as like our eyeball collecting everything. And this is how we can be able to see all the cool stuff that’s out there,” said Bergonio, who gave HNN a tour of the telescope and the dome that houses it.

The telescope can be remotely controlled.

So far, it’s taken photos of galaxies, the Orion Nebula, and star clusters.

“I know that there’s tons of pictures and tons of people doing the same thing, but it’s different doing it yourself,” Bergonio said.

The observatory supports students in the school’s college-level Astronomy class, in conjunction with Leeward Community College, and the Mauna Kea Scholars program.

It’s also aimed at encouraging students to pursue STEM careers.

Senior Marianne Bonilla is excited about the project.

“There are still a lot of things you can see out there, especially with new instruments,” she said.

“And with my proposal, I learned that there’s definitely a lot of tweaks and things that can be that can be done to these instruments to make your pictures and stuff even better.”

“There’s also stuff related to astronomy that’s related to agriculture. So like, you could use the moon phases to figure out how to grow plants,” said sophomore Chantel Rafanaan, who wants to be a farmer.

“I want them to realize that science is a process and it does require patience,” said Bergonio, who hopes to eventually expand access to telescope to students across the state.

“But at the end of the day, like I said, it’s something that will definitely be worth it.”