For over 100 years, astronomy has been part of the academic culture at Thacher. The dark skies of the Ojai Valley and its proximity to Los Angeles and Pasadena have attracted many big name astronomers to campus over the last century, including George Hale, who directed the Mt. Wilson Observatory (home to the largest telescope in the world at the time) and who spoke at the school twice in 1915 while his son was a student here; Edwin Hubble, who first identified galaxies outside our own and who delivered the commencement address here in 1942; and UCLA professor George Abell, who worked with then Thacher head of school Newton Chase to establish the Thacher Observatory on campus in 1965 as part of the Summer Science Program (SSP).
The result of a collaboration between Thacher, Caltech, UCLA, Stanford, and the Claremont Colleges, the SSP, arguably the nation’s most successful high school science program, utilized the Observatory to train high school students in observational astronomy for several decades. The Observatory was also used to train undergraduate and graduate students and to test prototype instruments, including some that were ultimately installed on the Hubble Space Telescope. But in 1999, Thacher discontinued its affiliation with the SSP and the Observatory fell out of use.
Reclaiming the Observatory
Between 2006 and 2012, Dr. Chris Vyhnal, chair of the Thacher Science Department, began efforts to reclaim the observatory for astronomy. After several years of working together informally, Vyhnal’s conversations with Dr. Jon Swift, research scientist and project manager for the MINERVA small telescope project at Caltech, evolved into a full-time faculty position for Dr. Swift at Thacher teaching math and physics and directing the observatory. He’s brought to Thacher a wealth of scientific and technical expertise, inspiration, and vision, along with a NASA research grant to continue his study of exoplanets and eclipsing binary star systems.
In 2015 and 2016, Thacher students accompanied Dr. Swift to several astronomy conferences, including the Hot Wiring the Transient Universe Conference in Santa Barbara, California; the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Kissimmee, Florida; and the 229th Meeting of the AAS in Grapevine, Texas, where they presented on the preliminary work being done at the observatory. They were met with enthusiastic encouragement from the astronomy research community.
In 2018, NASA’s space-based observatory called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched and is currently surveying the sky for every nearby eclipsing binary and transiting exoplanet, including those accessible to the Thacher Observatory. Thanks to a major upgrade to the facility in the fall of 2016, including a new PlaneWave CDK-700 telescope, Andor iKon L-series CCD camera, and fully robotic dome, Dr. Swift has been accepted into the TESS Follow-up Observing Program. Thacher astronomy students will be conducting follow-up observations in collaboration with the TESS team. Dr. Swift is excited to include this partnership in Thacher’s astronomy curriculum, “The ability to tie together our curriculum with important scientific work at the frontier of astrophysics is priceless, and the student experience is powerful, authentic, and somewhat of a paradigm shift.”