Thursday, May 26, 2005

You Can't Take It With You...

But you can leave it for someone else to enjoy:
THOMPSON FALLS - The distance between Thompson Falls High School and the sun is about 93 million miles.

But it sure seems a lot closer now that Rusty Kincade's astronomy class has their hands on an 11-inch Celestron telescope installed inside an all-weather observatory on campus.

With the new telescope, students can see, photograph and record on videotape close-ups of the sun, moon, stars, planets, constellations and, on Tuesday at least, an open ridge 4,000 feet high in the Bitterroot Mountains about six miles across the Clark Fork Valley.


The telescope was pointing at the ridgetop Tuesday for demonstration purposes only, because there wasn't much to see in the daytime sky on a partly cloudy day.

Students did get a view of the sun through a special filter. It looked like a bright orange ball, a little smaller than you'd expect, because the halo rays were filtered out.

"We saw solar flares last week," said Casey Zander, 17, one of 18 astronomy students in Kincade's class. Sun spots were also visible recently, she said. All viewing of the sun is through the darkened lens, which filters out the sun's rays because they are harmful to vision.

The $25,000 telescope-observatory system already has been a boon for recruiting astronomy students, Kincade said. It was installed behind the gym a month or so ago on a concrete pad where a big satellite dish once stood.

"We have 27 students signed up for the Astronomy I class next year, and we are scheduling an Astronomy II class for the first time. Eight have signed up" for the advanced class, he said.

The telescope, observatory and associated electronic equipment belonged to a Thousand Oaks, Calif., man, Robert Alan Ziegler, whose sister lives in Thompson Falls and knows Kincade.

Diagnosed with cancer, Ziegler wanted to view the night sky in all its glory before he died. To that end, he purchased one of the best systems available for amateur astronomers, the 11-inch Celestron NexStar GPS.

He died in December, and his sister, Jean Polequaptewa of Thompson Falls, the executor of his estate, decided to donate the observatory to Thompson Falls High School in her brother's memory.

"I knew that this would provide you with a terrific tool with which to inspire kids," she wrote Kincade from California, where she is visiting while she settles the estate. "Out of all the pain, sorrow and frustration I've experienced, giving this to Thompson Falls High School brings me an immense amount of joy. I know Bob would have thought it a great idea also."

Kincade said the telescope is state-of-the-art, and far beyond the means of most high school astronomy programs. (Previously, he used an 8-inch Celestron, with no observatory.)

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