Arc to Arcturus, the red giant in the constellation Boötes. Spike to Spica, a binary star in the constellation Virgo. When the Girl Scout Camp Elliott Barker in Angel Fire welcomes campers in July, young stargazers will use these orientation tricks to find their way around the heavens.
Astronomer Gary Zientara has operated the camp’s observatory for the last five years, and teaches an astronomy class that uses experiential learning to bring the universe within reach.
“I thought this was a good way of promoting astronomy in the community,” said Zientara, who built the observatory with donated funds from the Rotary Club of Angel Fire and others. “Plus, giving minds an idea of what they might want to do for the future.”
Around a dozen Girl Scouts elect to take his astronomy course each week the camp is open. The girls, ages 8–13, come from California, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico.
“Monday mornings, around 10 o’clock, we set up a telescope on the campgrounds near the cafeteria. We have the girls look at the sun,” said Zientara.
The telescope utilizes a special part of the red spectrum called Hydrogen Alpha, which restricts the amount of light coming through it.
“That’s where they can see — not only sunspots — but the granulation, the prominences in solar flares. This is something that you usually can only see during a total eclipse, but this telescope allows you to see at any time,” said Zientara.
While the girls stand four in a line to look through the telescope’s eyepiece, Zientara and his assistant Bob Lagasse take turns demonstrating astronomical phenomena and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
“I have what I call a bed sheet universe,” said Zientara. “We bring it out and I — with a magic marker — put a grid on it. And I say ‘This can be considered the fabric of space and time.’”
“We demonstrate gravity, using golf balls, basketballs, beach balls and even a shot putt — we show how much our space and time are warped by matter. I say ‘we can do ripples in space and time, and they start rippling — they really make that thing go,” said Zientara. “They laugh and have a good time.”
The girls also learn about the sun by making pocket sundials — they draw radial lines on a card, poke a toothpick through its center-point, and observe the time of day.
“There’s different ones you can make for different places in the country — different latitudes,” he said. “So I’ll say, ‘Well, you can build a sundial for where you live.’ And they get an idea of how the sun doesn’t always look the same in the sky everywhere on earth.”
When it rains, the girls go indoors, but don’t miss out on experiential learning. “Each one of them has a tennis ball. I take a table lamp, take the lampshade off, darken the whole lunchroom, and then turn on the lamp. I say, ‘Okay, this is the sun and your head is the earth.’ To explain the phases of the moon, I say, ‘Just take that tennis ball and move it around your head and watch what happens.’”
Zientara also includes lessons about women in science — Annie Jump Cannon, who created the classification system of stars, Vera Rubin, who discovered dark matter, and others.
Before sundown, the Girl Scouts hike about a mile out from camp to the roll-off-roof observatory. The hike crosses an earthen dam and passes by a little lake the girls have named ‘Fairy Pond.’ Zientara chose the spot because it was away from the camp’s lights and was clear of trees to allow for celestial observations.
“There’s a lot of factors that determine how much time we spend there, but usually an hour and a half, two hours,” said Zientara. “We use the laser pointer for pointing out the constellations and give them a basic mapping of the sky — like where the North Star is and how to find it.”
The observatory, which sits at around 9,000 feet elevation, features a 10-inch diameter Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope, a powerful compound telescope that uses both lenses and mirrors. “You can see tens of millions of light years into the past,” said Zientara.
He and Lagasse sometimes put a video camera on the back of the telescope and hook it up to a laptop computer. “They’ll see real-time pictures — continuous frames of planets like Jupiter, for example. Jupiter spins on its axis once every 10 hours, so it’s really spinning fast. Over the course of a two-hour demonstration, they’ll see the Great Red Spot move.”
The girls are also able to see Jupiter’s moons, and Saturn’s too, including Titan — one of the biggest moons in our solar system and the only one with an atmosphere.
“This telescope is capable of not only seeing the planets, but star clusters, galaxies,” said Zientara. “One of the best years was — I think it was around three or four years ago — there was a fantastic Perseid meteor shower.”
“This particular year, it looked so good I told the camp director, ‘I think maybe you’d want to have a special evening for those that want to see it.’ There were about 15 girls that came up, and we stayed up from 10–2, and we saw over 250 meteors,” recalled Zientara. “That was one of the best times I’ve ever had with them. It was phenomenal.”