OCEAN CITY — The ideal place for a space observatory would be a remote mountain top far removed from city lights — not exactly at sea level in the shadow of a Ferris wheel.
Still, Ocean City High School will open its own research-quality observatory in a ceremony Friday night and become one of the only public high schools in the country with such a facility.
"To walk outside your back door and have an observatory is unique," Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said. "It brings the heavens and stars right into our classrooms."
The project cost more than $60,000, but all the time and materials were donated by a long list of benefactors that includes the Ocean City Free Library, Ocean City Education Foundation, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and several local contractors.
"Most universities would be jealous of that observatory," said science teacher Matt Oster.
The project has taken about six years — the same time it takes light from the nearest star in the Ophiuchus constellation to travel 35 trillion miles to Earth.
The 14-inch telescope that is mounted in the observatory has the power to clearly view nearby planets and their moons. It has been used by the school district for a long time already, but astronomy teacher John Herrmann has had to lug the large instrument around for his classes.
The endeavor to give it a permanent home started with the formation of the Ocean City Education Foundation. The non-profit’s chairperson David Allegretto said they realized how competitive it is to become a top-notch high school, and building a state-of-the-art facility like the observatory became a goal.
After years of fundraising and permitting delays, the district finally broke ground in the spring and recently completed construction.
The structure is a cylindrical cement room, painted Raiders red on the exterior and located in the northwest corner of the athletic complex, a few yards from the football field and track.
It is easily spotted by its metal dome, which rotates with the flick of a switch. A section of it retracts like a thin, rectangular garage door to reveal the sky.
The astronomical pricetag of that roof was the project’s main cost.
"There aren't many dome manufacturers in the country," Allegretto said.
The district expects to integrate the facility into a variety of classes. While the obvious application is astronomy, the observatory can also be a valuable tool in physics, mathematics, history, engineering and more.
"Not many high school students have an opportunity to participate in lab work in an actual observatory," Allegretto said. "Hopefully, colleges will view that as an advantage."
All the district’s students, from kindergarten through high school, will be able to use the observatory, as will the public during special celestial events — passing comets, meteor showers and remarkable full moons, for example.
Some work remains, but the goal is to use grant money to provide technology that would allow images from the telescope to be transmitted to screens in the schools and the local library.
Oster said he is even in talks with people at NASA about setting a program in Ocean City.
As far as Taylor, Oster and Allegretto are aware, Ocean City is the only public high school in the state with such an observatory. They know of private schools in New Jersey that have them, and they also found other public schools around the country that do, but only a few.
"It's not a science that kids have a lot of exposure to," Taylor said. "You talk about the moons and stars and they kind of go, 'Oh, OK,' but now they can really see it."
The students are apparently excited as well.
On a recent morning, Oster was walking by the observatory with a class and they asked him what the odd-looking building was. When he answered, they asked how they could join the astronomy class.
The good news for them: the school year coincides with Ocean City’s off-season, so they won’t have to worry about lights from that nearby Ferris wheel obscuring their view of space.
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