Where no girls have gone before: Telescope time allotted for Maunakea Scholars winners at observatories

  • Mary Beth Laychak and Doug Simons from Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope congratulate Honokaa High School winners Anika Wiley, Kaitlin Villafuerte, Marie-Claire Ely, Hokunani Sanchez, Keilani Steele and HHS Science Department Chair Alison English at the Maunakea Scholars awards ceremony last Thursday. LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY
    Mary Beth Laychak and Doug Simons from Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope congratulate Honokaa High School winners Anika Wiley, Kaitlin Villafuerte, Marie-Claire Ely, Hokunani Sanchez, Keilani Steele and HHS Science Department Chair Alison English at the Maunakea Scholars awards ceremony last Thursday. LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY

HONOKAA — When the head of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope talks, science students listen.

On Thursday, dozens of Honokaa High Schoolers, teachers, administrators and astronomers assembled in the school library for their first Maunakea Scholars awards ceremony, captivated by a talk led by CFHT’s Executive Director Doug Simons.

A science buff himself since their age, he shared his own personal experience climbing the ladder to where he is today, and encouraged the students to follow their own passions.

The main purpose of his visit, however, was to announce the school’s first Maunakea Scholars winners. Founded by Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in 2015, the program gives students from five Hawaii high schools statewide the opportunity to apply for time to test their own theories on telescopes at Maunakea observatories.

In addition to HHS, Kapolei, Kalani, Nanakuli on Oahu, and Waiakea in Hilo are part of the program.

HHS’s seven-member astronomy club is all girls, a trait shared by the Nanakuli Maunakea Scholars.

“This is the fifth time so far this year we’ve held an awards ceremony in the state,” Simons said. “I think we may have saved the best for last.”

To qualify, the students worked with a mentor, mostly from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, over several months to research and assemble a comprehensive essay outlining what they would want to test at the summit.

“The idea for this program started a long time ago. We wanted to organize a program that connected students with the observatories,” Simons said. “An important part of the program is getting the students up to the summit to actually see the telescopes in the daytime that they’ll be using at night. This isn’t some sort of homework assignment. It is what allows them to express their creativity to the program.”

Of five proposals submitted by HHS students, two were selected. Students collaborated to analyze data and prepare their theories. The winning proposals were selected based on technical viability, creativity and scientific merit, according to Simons.

“I’ve come to know the students quite well and had to keep the winners a secret for weeks,” said Mary Beth Laychak, CFHT’s outreach program manager, who mentored the HHS’s seven club members the past few months. “The students worked on their proposals for about half the school year.”

The first winner, titled “Dark Nebulae and Their Connection to Star Formation,” was submitted by students Hokunani Sanchez and Keilani Steele. Their proposal focuses on the Great Rift Nebula in the center of the Milky Way. Dark nebulae — or giant clouds of very cold dust — are believed to maintain a large number of forming young stars. The students will use the MegaCam at CFHT’s Waimea office to look at the Great Rift Nebula, with follow-up observations on the infrared camera WIRCam. They will then compare the two images to determine if there is a difference between the patches in the nebula and also see it from the IRTF telescope at the summit.

“We decided that we wanted to choose a more untouched subject,” Steele said. “We were interested in start formations and young stars in untouched nebulae. We worked about two months on the project doing a lot of research on the objects of dark nebulae, the different ones in the sky, which ones were available during which seasons and what we could see in them — such as the young stars — and what filters we could use on the telescopes to capture pictures with.”

The second winner was “Possible Life in Other Places in Our Solar System,” submitted by students Anika Wiley, Marie-Claire Ely and Kaitlin Villafuerte. They will utilize the 3-meter telescope at NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility at the summit two nights this summer. Using one of the infrared spectrographs, the students will study the atmosphere, looking for signs of weather and bio markers – molecules that are suggested life forms – on the infrared spectra of Saturn’s moon, Titan, ideal for observation this summer.

“We picked our topic based on what’s important to us,” said 10th-grader Villafuerte. “In our generation we’re already low on resources in what the planet can give us, so we thought it would be best to search for life on other planets, and if it’s possible. We spent two weeks writing the proposal.”

Addressing the students, Simons said, “You will be doing things that have never been done before with high school students, using literally the most powerful telescope in the world. What you get out of the program will scale with what you put into it. Where you go from here is in large place in your hands, but we will help you every step of the way.”

Laychak added that a visit is also being scheduled for all HHS science students to the summit by CFHT this summer.

Maunakea Scholars was launched in 2015 by CFHT and Gemini Observatory, in partnership with the Maunakea Observatories and the Hawaii State Department of Education. The program is designed to bring aspiring young astronomers into the observatory community, allocating time for Hawaii high school students to work on telescopes up on the summit.

The Department of Education has also played a key role.

“They have been super star partners in all this,” Simons said. “You don’t necessarily see it up front, but we know what’s going on in the DOE to make this possible. Without that help it simply wouldn’t happen.”

Other observatories that provide time for students on their telescopes are Gemini Observatory, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope – operated by East Asian Observatory, Las Cumbres Observatory, NASA and Subaru Telescope.

Seven astronomy mentors, including graduate students from UH Institute for Astronomy and CFHT, help guide the Maunakea Scholars as they begin their research exploring the stars and beyond.

“It feels a bit like a rocket ship that I have sort of launched with this program,” Simons said. “Next year we hope to add at least one or two schools on Maui, one on Molokai and one on Kauai. The intent from the outset was to make this available to kids all over the state. The program is here to stay. We have an agreement with the DOE and UH for at least the next five years.”

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