On clear summer evenings, I sit on the lawn of William L. Buck Elementary School in Valley Stream — a five-minute walk from my house — with a telescope I was given four years ago at my bat mitzvah. From my small corner of the universe in Valley Stream, peering upward, I see constellations and planets. My eyes travel farther than any land-bound human has ever gone, exploring the cosmos through my glass lens. In these moments, I know I love space visible in the night sky, and the science that can describe it.
This summer, I spent six weeks pursuing this passion for astrophysics with the Summer Science Program in New Mexico.
Thirty-four other student scientists and I started by shooting photos of the night sky, using the telescope at Tortugas Mountain Observatory, near Las Cruces. Then, in flipbook-like fashion, the captured images showed a small speck of an asteroid hurtling through space. From three simple images, we derived coordinates and calculations that could predict the position of the space rock and track its journey around the solar system for the next 50 million years.
Nightly discussions in the observing center with my peers began with thoughts of confusion and questions about how to decipher the symbols and numbers that haunted our whiteboards, but by the close of the program, we found understanding. We spent our days poring over problems and collectively devising solutions to what at first seemed unsolvable. The program allowed us to gain firsthand experience in the work of astrophysicists. Like them, we collaborated and questioned and watched calculations that once existed only in textbooks come alive in the surrounding sky.
Unlike a typical school day, our work was not accompanied by an unwelcome sense of stress. Instead I felt an exhilarating sense of opportunity, relishing the reality that a high school student like me could tap into the infinite world of space exploration.
Ilana Greenberg is a Valley Stream resident and a junior at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck.