Tahoe Expedition Academy Student’s Astronomy Camp at the SSO Ranch


D. C. Larabee and the Tahoe Expedition Academy students at the SSO ranch expedition

I’ve been the Chairman of Space Science for Schools for many years. Our mission is to foster and promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for students of all ages through programs and projects. This past September Taylor Simmers and D. C. Larabee from the Tahoe Expedition Academy asked me if their middle school class could come to the SSO ranch for an astronomy camp and a tour of the observatory. We set the dates of October 23 and 24 for a dozen 7th and 8th grade students to set up camp in my yard and hoped for good weather. The weather turned out to be perfect with 70+ degree sunny days and dark clear nights.

Joe Tavormina is Space Science for School’s president and a great friend of mine. He’s an engineer and an entrepreneur. Joe and I were the technical experts for the event. Joe is fascinated by astronomy and cosmology and we’ve had many engaging conversations about the latest books we’ve read on these subjects. There was a partial eclipse of the sun in the afternoon of the day the students arrived and everyone got to view it through a Dobsonian telescope with a solar filter. And if that wasn’t cool enough the largest sunspot group seen in many years was near the center of the sun. It was visible with the naked eye through solar viewing glasses we had.


Partial solar eclipse taken with cell phone through a telescope with solar filter.

At night Joe and I spent a couple hours in the observatory showing students various astronomical objects pointing and slewing the SSO telescope around the sky. The students were intensely curious about everything and they asked intelligent questions that challenged Joe and me to answer as best we could. After that everyone went back to the camp area and viewed through a few telescopes set up in the yard. The Tahoe Expeditionary Academy is a great educational institution. I wish I had the chance to learn that way when I was their age. For every project the students are required to deliver a product based on what they learned. For this project they decided to write about their personal experience at the astronomy camp here at SSO. They all voted on the best four reports and I agree to publish them in this blog. Here is what four of the students wrote about their experience.

Rich Williams 


The Edge of the Universe
by Fin Swan

What is Earth’s place in the universe? Is that even an answerable question? Earth is infinitely insignificant when compared to the entirety of the universe. As Joe Tavormina pointed out, we could be living in or on the edge of a black hole, and we wouldn’t know it. Although we might not know our place in the universe, my classmates and I were given the privilege to get a glimpse of an answer by looking through the most powerful telescope in our region. It was approximately 9:00 o’clock at night. I was sitting in a world-class observatory with two of the most educated people I have ever met, having one of the most sophisticated conversations I’ve ever had. Together, we watched the monitor as it showed us pictures of stars, clusters, and galaxies so far away that we see them as they were millions of years ago. Few questions were asked, as we were all diligently taking notes. When a question was asked, the answer was often, “We don’t know yet.” I underline the “yet” because they emphasized it. They hope, and believe, that someday we will know.


Our Reality
by Kira Collins

Is the Universe at the edge of a black hole? Is it possible to conceptualize Earth’s place in the universe, or even wherever the universe is? The universe is expanding faster than the speed of light. But… where is it expanding to? Are we growing into nothing? Our middle school went to Alpine County to the Sierra Stars Observatory, where Rich Williams and Joe Tavormina raised these questions and made us think about the fact that there is so much more out there. For example, in four billion years we are going to crash into the Andromeda galaxy. Everything out there is so much bigger than us. We are as insignificant to the universe as an atom on Earth. We are even smaller. We may never know if there is anything beyond us, or if the universe is all there is and it goes on forever and ever. Maybe the universe goes on and on and on until eventually it just fades into nothingness.


Galaxies of Questions
by Dillon Jenkins

I never thought that we could be in a black hole, but it makes sense to me. When our class was visiting the Sierra Stars Observatory on October 23 & 24, 2014, Joe Tavormina, Space Science for Schools president, explained this idea to us. When I heard it, it raised a lot of questions in my mind like: If this is true, then what could the normal universe (or what’s out there) be like? Is this black hole expanding into an alternate universe? A few cool facts that Rich and Joe were telling us were that nothing with mass can go faster than the speed of light. In 4 Billion years one of our neighboring galaxies, Andromeda, will collide with our Galaxy, The Milky Way. The reason for that collision is that each galaxy has so much mass they will be attracted like magnets, and will change their structure. Rich also said that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light. Again, my head filled with questions: But what could that be expanding into? It made me think of what our real place in the universe is. Since everything is moving, being destroyed, and things being created every second, to me, we don’t really have a place in the universe. Sierra Stars was an eye-opening trip for me. It made me realize how small we really are and that there is so much in the world that still needs to be proven or discovered.


Our Experience at the Sierra Stars Ranch
by Rain Larrabee

We learned a variety of things from our visit to Sierra Stars Ranch from Joe and Rich, the names of our experts. Joe and Rich are part of an organization known as Space Science for Kids. There is an explanation for the universe that is more plausible than religion. Our species has found a way to discover a small portion of the universe, and these experts shared their wide range of knowledge with us. What is Earth’s place in the universe? I think that our earth is so insignificant in the eyes of the universe. The universe can go on for an infinite length for all we know. If the earth is so small, imagine how insignificant and small humans are to the universe. Joe and Rich taught us a variety of things, but the most important things that they taught us were about the universe. For example, the globular star clusters were something that I had never heard of before, and is a piece of knowledge that I am glad I now know. A globular cluster is a cluster of stars that are found in and around galaxies and contain the oldest stars nearly as old as the universe. There are almost no young stars whatsoever. They taught us about Nucleosynthesis, this is how you turn one element into another. Elements heavier than helium and lithium are made this way. This is only a small amount of what I had learned from our experts, Joe and Rich. My knowledge about the universe was most definitely enhanced thanks to these two men. This experience taught me both about telescopes and the technology that we currently use to globular clusters and galaxies.


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