Searching the sky 2,000 miles from home


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.

As we made our discoveries in Las Cruces, the scientific community was making its own exploratory voyages. In just one summer, the James Webb Space Telescope continued peering further into the past with the infrared space images it produced; gravitational waves were collected using astronomical objects light-years away; and India landed a rover on the south side of the moon.
Working away in the New Mexico heat, I was inspired by the fact that these breakthroughs were applying the same fundamental scientific method we high school kids practiced daily. I felt connected to the greater scientific community, if only in a small way. The world was innovating on a large scale, while our small class learned to develop the potential for our generation to follow in our greatest scientists’ footsteps.
Las Cruces was far from home. It didn’t have a pool or bike paths like the ones in Valley Stream’s Hendrickson Park — but across the mountain, 30 degrees above the horizon, we could see an asteroid moving across the sky through our 24-inch-diameter telescope. Though far from home, I felt comforted by the same sense of awe and passion I had experienced so many times while looking up at the night sky from my backyard.
I came home a few weeks ago, and have since gone back with my miniature telescope to Buck Elementary, to stare at the sky and think of how far civilization has come in understanding it, and how far we have traveled. And now I can appreciate the fact that whether I’m in Las Cruces or here in Valley Stream, I can explore it, too.

Ilana Greenberg is a Valley Stream resident and a junior at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck.