The students of Managua’s Pierre & Marie Curie high school are stargazing more than usual these days thanks to the recent inauguration of Latin America’s first academic observatory, named in honor of U.S. moonwalker Neil Armstrong.
The observatory, which houses a powerful Orion telescope inside a 15-foot dome, is part of the school’s new chemistry and physics laboratory built to promote science, curiosity and discovery in Nicaragua. The science center was inaugurated last Friday night in an event attended by international astronomers, government officials, and foreign dignitaries.
“This is a great motivation for all scientists who are still hidden” in the shadows of Nicaraguan society, says recent Curie high school graduate Andrea Rodríguez, who last year was part of a team of five Nicaraguan students who discovered a new asteroid traveling between Mars and Jupiter. The hurling space rock, measuring 50-plus meters, has been temporarily designated “2012 FE52.” But if it maintains its orbit for five years, Rodríguez and her Pierre & Marie Curie classmates will have the honor of giving the asteroid a new “Nicaraguan name,” becoming the first Central Americas to officially name something in outer space.
Rodríguez, who has since been accepted to study at Brown University in the United States, says the observatory and science labs are “going to make a lot more people in Nicaragua interested in astronomy and physics.”
Fellow student and astronomy enthusiast Othman Alkhuffash, who is also part of the Nicaraguan team that discovered the asteroid, stressed that the observatory, which will be led by Nicaragua’s most distinguished scientist, Dr. Jaime Incer, will also be open to other universities and high school groups, making it the first observatory in Latin America built strictly for educational purposes.
“Access will be open to the public, so any school will be able to use it,” Alkhuffash says.
The “Nicaraguan asteroid” was discovered during last year’s Global Astronomy Month sponsored by the group Astronomers Without Borders. Using specialty software and telescopic images provided over the Internet from NASA observatories in Texas and Hawaii, the students discovered the “2012 FE52” asteroid using only their laptops.
Their discovery, verified by the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University, occurred on just the second day of the month-long event, making Nicaragua’s Pierre & Marie Curie school the first among the 500 participating schools and universities to identify a previously unknown asteroid.
Now, with the inauguration of Neil Armstrong Observatory, perhaps the next outer-space discovery made here will be through Nicaragua’s own telescope, donated by Dr. Incer.
Nicaragua, Rodríguez says, has good stargazing conditions due to the lack of light contamination at night. “We don’t have big cities, so the sky here is very clear,” she says.
The country’s biggest disadvantage for developing astronomy so far, she says, has been the lack of financing and a general disinterest in scientific discovery. The opening of the Neil Armstrong Observatory will hopefully change that by sparking a new interest in astronomy and a new era of discovery in Nicaragua, she says.
“We are very proud,” Rodríguez says. “This is an opportunity to observe everything that we have never been able to see before from Nicaragua.”