Starry-eyed teen off to space camp

By Denise Montgomery


She is a starry-eyed teenager but her excitement is not that of a typical 17-year-old girl. Ashlee Parkes is into astronomy - and is one of four Kiwi secondary students heading off to the International Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.

Her face lights up at the thought ... an opportunity given to her by the Royal Society of New Zealand, an organisation that promotes science, technology and the humanities. It pays 80 per cent of the cost of the one-week trip in July; she has to raise around $1000.

Ashlee, from Westlake Girls' High, is the only Auckland student selected this year. She will be immersed in space science: hands-on astronaut training, experiencing 4Gs of lift-off force and weightlessness in a space simulator.

She'll be doing that with 150 students from around the world, all interested in space.

Ashlee recalls the moment she found out she'd been accepted. Her father David did his own little impression of an astronaut by bouncing off the walls of their Forrest Hill home. "I was checking my email and thinking, 'Oh no, here's the rejection letter'," Ashlee says.

"I read it about five times, then I burst into tears.

"Dad was so excited. Last year, when I applied, he was telling everybody, 'My daughter has applied for space camp'. Dad is overly proud of me."

Last year Ashlee missed out. Her physics grades weren't high enough and she was told she needed to get more involved in astronomy. So she knuckled down, dramatically improved her scores, and began volunteering at Stardome in the school holidays and whenever she can. To do that, she has to catch two buses, a two-hour ride costing more than $10. Her dedication paid off. "I wanted to go on this for so long. I told myself I had to push myself and if I don't get these grades I am not going to get it."

She admits it's an unusual interest, probably grown from time spent with her father watching space documentaries. While her younger sister Ruth, 14, prefers to head off to her room to play the guitar, Ashlee and David like nothing better than watching astronomy programmes.

Her interest, ahem, skyrocketed in Year 9 at school, during the geology and astronomy part of her science course.

"So on the weekends, we would go shopping on a Sunday and about lunchtime would come home and watch Planet Science. Each episode would go through a different planet, asteroids and comets. The more I was learning the more I was fascinated by it. Then I realised it was the thing I wanted to do."

Her father would even text her if there was a good space programme on so they could watch it together. She collects The Universe series on DVD - the family doesn't have Sky - and watches at least one episode a week.

"I don't know anyone else interested in astronomy - my friends think it's cool but they don't know a lot about it," she says.

Other than watching space DVDs, she's most at home at the Stardome Observatory at One Tree Hill, where she can talk to like-minded people, like Dr Grant Christie and Petra Tang, an astronomy educator.

"Petra's given me a lot of advice on which university to go to, and what my options are ..."

Ashlee doesn't yet have a telescope - it's on her wishlist but working three hours a week at a local cattery doesn't quite allow for it.

"I was meant to get one last year for my birthday but I went to the Hands-On Science programme run by Otago University instead."

Her fascination with astronomy largely comes from being intrigued by the unknown.

"I like the fact that there's so much out there, so much we don't know. It terrifies me ... space is scary ... empty, and big. It scares me and I have never wanted to go into space but I love knowing about it."

Her research would be "into pulsars or quasars or something big and scary".'

Ashlee realises there isn't much call for astronomers in New Zealand, but says she may do medicine if her astronomical dream doesn't come true. There's certainly not a lot of call for experts here in her other pet topic - dinosaurs.

"I do have quite unusual interests," she laughs. "I love human biology too ... but I'm also a big fan of music and movies - thrillers, horror and action films. With music, it's rock, alternative and heavy metal."

Between now and space camp she has another distraction she's excited about - the transit of Venus. "I am really interested in Venus and in the bigger stuff like the nebulas and pulsars and supernovas ... all the big scary stuff."

And she's delighted on this occasion her previously disinterested friends want to join her.

"I'll be going with my friends to Stardome for the day ... Venus is by far my favourite planet, despite being the Roman god of love, it's a monster with sulphuric acid clouds and atmospheric pressure of something like 90 times Earth.

"The cool thing is that everybody is getting very excited and enthused about it.

"My friend turned to me the other day and was like, 'Do you want to go to the Stardome to watch the Jupiter transit? I said, "It's Venus!" and she replied, 'Same thing'.

But if Ashlee has her way, she'll help future generations understand Jupiter and Venus are very different.

"I've always wanted my own planetarium because I want to get astronomy out there to kids to make it better known," she says.

On Wednesday, when Venus crosses the face of the sun, Ashlee will have one eye on the stars - and one on the other side of the world.

EVENTS FOR THE TRANSIT

Wine and the stars

Stardome's Night Sky show includes cheese and wine on June 5. Learn about planets, stars and constellations visible in the night sky. Tickets include courtyard telescope viewing after the show (weather permitting).

WHAT Wine, Cheese and Astronomy

WHERE Stardome, 670 Manukau Rd, One Tree Hill Domain

WHEN June 5, 8-9.30pm

HOW MUCH $25, R18. ph 624 1246 or email info@stardome.org.nz

WEB stardome.org.nz

Stardome Public Open Day: On June 6 from 10am-5pm there will be a public open day at Stardome. Stardome has bought a new solar telescope to watch the transit and there will be free courtyard telescope viewing. There will also be short planetarium shows explaining the transit (gold coin donation), which won't occur again for 105 years. A live feed will run to a big screen at Stardome and is also at stardome.org.nz

Auckland Museum on transit day: Auckland Museum has viewers and telescopes and on June 6 from 11am-3pm will have astronomical experts available along with storyteller Pita Turei to give a Maori perspective. Free, outside the northern entrance steps.

Lecture: Stardome astronomer Grant Christie will give a public lecture about the transit in the Auckland Museum auditorium on Saturday, June 2, at 2pm (30-45 mins). Children 7 years and over welcome. For more information see aucklandmuseum.com (events calendar).

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- THE AUCKLANDER

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