Space Cowboys

Students lead galactic efforts on campus and beyond.

Jennifer Wagner
October 29, 2019
Two students on the roof of Love Gym at Phillips Exeter Academy.

The rooftop of Love Gymnasium is vast, flat and really high up. Just ask seniors Avery Clowes ’20 and Billy Menken ’20. They’ve been there. The pair scaled four flights of stairs (including a super-steep set by the old squash courts), unlocked two secured doors, and stepped out onto the building’s roof on a sunny Sunday afternoon last October. It was not a prank. It was part of a fully sanctioned scientific expedition. 

The boys’ goal was to get in touch with space — literally, to hold pieces of it. To do that, they needed to find a giant “bowl” where micrometeorites, or granule-sized space rocks that have traveled through our planet’s atmosphere without completely vaporizing, might land. “About 60 tons fall to earth every day in a constant shower we never notice,” Menken says. “They’re 0.2 to 0.5 millimeters in diameter — barely visible to the naked eye.” With its substantial perimeter ledges and surface area, Love Gym’s roof seemed just the spot. 

Their hypothesis proved correct. Clowes and Menken found a mother lode of micrometeorites in piles of dirt surrounding the building’s gutters, pushed there by the prior day’s rain. Using ordinary magnets and Ziploc bags they collected space debris to analyze. “Micrometeorites are just sitting on the ground waiting to be discovered,” Clowes says.

“When you look at one through a microscope, it’s like this alien foreign object. It looks like a polished metal sphere. You can see crystals that have formed because of the heat from entering through the atmosphere. You can see the melted surface.” Beyond the cool factor, Clowes says, “[This project] was a way to engage in the space community and get a feel for what it means to do real science.”

Inspired, the boys planned another on-Earth space project for the spring. This time, they built a cloud chamber to detect cosmic rays. “You’d be surprised at how easy it is,” Menken says, listing a few required materials, including a glass rectangular prism (or a fish tank), sponges, isopropyl alcohol and a few blocks of dry ice. “It’s beautiful that you don’t need a thousand dollars and a massive battery and some complex wiring to make some project to do with space,” Clowes says.

Their findings, and the thrill of discovery, were too good not to share. “You can watch as many space documentaries as you want,” Menken says, “but seeing something from space, seeing a cosmic ray zip through a cloud chamber that you built, is completely different.”

This year, the duo launched a website to publish what they’ve learned and engage a space-enthusiast community far beyond the Academy. The site features science-project video tutorials (including how to re-create their micrometeorite mining session and cloud chamber on the cheap), testimonials from fellow students about why space is relevant right now, and advice from college professors on how to prepare for careers in space.

Clowes and Menken also co-wrote "The High Schooler’s Guide to the Galaxy," an in-depth resource book for kids interested in space, which they posted online for free download. (Visit their website,, to download the guide.)

“Not everyone has access to an insane science museum, science competitions, internships or scholarships that help them get to the next level of achievement,” Clowes says of the 60-page primer. “The Guide is like lowering the barrier for entry to science, science education and science achievement.”

All of these efforts are part of a larger mission, they say, to “prepare young minds for the Space Age.” “We’re creating this more progressive mindset that we’re in this together, because this is really about humanity,” Menken says. “This is about developing a future that we want to live in. A future that’s exciting and full of curiosity and exploration. We want everybody to be a part of that together.”

You can watch as many space documentaries as you want, but seeing something from space, seeing a cosmic ray zip through a cloud chamber that you built, is completely different.”
Billy Menken

Meeting of the minds

Clowes and Menken met their prep year during winter track season when they competed in the same events, the 200 meters, 400 meters and high jump. “In high jump, you spend a lot of time waiting for other people to jump,” Menken says. “We had lots of good conversations.” During that on-deck downtime, Menken learned that Clowes developed an ion thruster for rockets while he was in middle school — an achievement that led him to the White House where he met President Barack Obama.

As the season wore on, they grew closer and hatched a plan to meet up over the summer to create something together. In July, Menken flew from his home state of Minnesota to Clowes’ house in Massachusetts. “We would work a good eight hours a day at least,” Menken remembers. “Then we’d go swimming or eat popovers.”

His plan was to stay two weeks. Surely that was enough time to build a magnetoplasmadynamic thruster (MPD), or a rocket engine that runs on electricity. “We barely created our first prototype in that time,” he says.

For an entire month, they tapped all the resources at hand, including the sculpture studio of Clowes’ grandfather, Jon Clowes ’68. “The lathe allowed us to take the copper stock that we ordered from a particle-supply company and create the anode for the thruster, which basically looked like a copper cylinder,” Clowes says. “A copper doughnut,” Menken translates. They also searched online resources and cold-emailed nearly 100 people — including professors at MIT, Georgia Tech and the University of Minnesota — asking for advice on how to build their MPD. One response came from a professor who put them in touch with a former graduate student who works at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin. They never met, but Skyped once a month for the next six months to review questions and refine their ideas.

Menken and Clowes present their magnetoplasmadynamic thruster project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2018.

The MPD project bled into the beginning of their lower year, where they found support in Academy science instructors like David Gulick and Scott Saltman. “They were there to make sure we didn’t get zapped,” Clowes says. With 650 joules coursing through a wire in a few tenths of a second, that was in the realm of possibility. By February, they completed their much-improved thruster and submitted it to the New Hampshire Science and Engineering Expo, where they took first place in the physics and electronics category and third overall. Next up was the International Science and Engineering Fair, where the project was judged against those made by students from 80 countries. Their thruster didn’t win, but they learned a lot about rocketry and each other. “Billy keeps me going,” Clowes says. “He’s extremely smart, amazing at math and just a really hard worker. It sounds very cliché, but we make a good team.”

On-campus outreach

It’s a team the boys want to continue to grow on campus, and there’s no better spot for doing that, once again, than Love Gymnasium. On Saturday nights it’s often loud inside the gym. But in September it wasn’t fans cheering for the basketball squad, it was rowdy club heads vying for attention at Exeter’s annual club sign-up night. Among the tables adorned with bowls of candy, basil plants and multicolored trophies stand Clowes and Menken, heads of the Exeter Off-Planet Society (EOPS), a club they formed their lower year. “If you like rockets, business, space or Elon Musk,” their literature reads, “you will love the Exeter Off-Planet Society.”

As a varsity soccer captain, Menken is comfortable rallying fellow students. It’s an essential leadership trait on this night especially, as EOPS is just one of the more than 150 student-run clubs on offer. The Midwesterner remains undaunted. “At Exeter, I learned how to start new things and pursue ideas even if they seemed a little crazy at first,” Menken says.

“[EOPS] was kind of a risk. I learned that when you step up and take initiative, there will be people there to support you. … [Exeter] helped me get out of my comfort zone.”

Clowes and Menken have lots in store for EOPS this year. They plan to visit the Grainger Observatory, make model rockets, and meet up with local children from town for science projects. They know from experience how impactful early exposure to science can be. “My parents were the catalysts for my initial learning about science,” Clowes says, recalling many formative trips to the Museum of Science in Boston with his mom. “There are these huge Van de Graaff voltage generators there with sparks and electricity. … Those ideas transitioned into my first ion thruster projects and then the much more advanced MPD I made with Billy. It’s just been that sort of journey.”

Menken’s journey is driven by what he calls his “utter disdain for the unknown.” Which could explain why after acing a fifth-year Spanish course as a first-term prep, he immediately began studying German. “I love progress and the idea of being out there on the next frontier,” he says, noting his dream job just might be starship captain leading a team of experts on a journey of exploration.

But before that rocket launches, the seniors have set their sights on college, where they hope to continue studying engineering. “Humanity is on the cusp of one of the greatest leaps in history, engaging the off-Earth realm,” Menken says. “And we intend to be part of it.”

Exeter's next-generation telescope

This fall, the astronomy program at Exeter makes a giant leap forward  with the addition of its most powerful telescope yet — one capable of capturing the faint glow of objects billions of light years away.

“This is a big telescope,” says Science Instructor and Grainger Observatory Director John Blackwell. “I’ve installed several hundred telescopes and while some of them have been really big, this is the first one that requires a crane.”

Weighing in at 1,500 pounds, the fully automatic scope, housed under a 16-foot dome, features an interior mirror measuring 0.7 meter in diameter and more than 2 meters in length. “The technology brings to use some interesting capacities,” Blackwell says. “We’ll be able to see finer detail in small objects that we haven’t been able to see before.

“Most people are familiar with telescopes that have an eyepiece that you look through and you say, ‘Whoa, look at that! Saturn!’” Blackwell adds. This one is different. Instead of an eyepiece, Blackwell explains, the telescope sports two ports. One port will go to a camera outfitted with various filters to capture images of stars, nebulosity and galaxies. The other port will go to a 10-meter-long fiber optic cable connected to a little black box, a digital spectrograph. The spectrograph takes a pinpoint of light and stretches it out into different colors. “That’s the game changer,” Blackwell says.

“[Spectroscopy] enables us to see the chemical composition of the object, how fast the object is spinning, what the temperature of the object is, the strength of its magnetic field,” Blackwell says. Turns out, to get that level of detail you need a really large telescope that collects a lot of light. “The larger the telescope, the bigger the light bucket,” Blackwell says.

The new telescope, made possible by the generous support of The Grainger Foundation, will be “driven” by computer automation — a development introduced during Blackwell’s 15-year tenure. “We use the computer now to tell the telescope to ‘Go to [the star] Capella,’ and it does it automatically,” Blackwell says. This means students can focus on the computer data in the classroom and analyze it in very close to real time. “We’re giving the students a flavor for what being an astronomer is really like nowadays,” Blackwell says.

You can watch construction progress at ExeterAstro

We’re giving the students a flavor for what being an astronomer is really like nowadays.”
John Blackwell

A brief history of astronomy at Exeter

Humans have looked to the stars for answers about their place and purpose in the world for hundreds of years. From the earliest days of Nicolaus Copernicus — a Renaissance-era mathematician who observed the heavens with nothing more than his naked eye — astronomers have offered explanations of how our planet was formed, how objects move in space and time, even how the force of gravity keeps our feet on the ground.

Preparing the next generation to actively engage with and add to this legacy of discovery is a driving force behind the evolving astronomy coursework at Exeter.

Where students of the 1930s pored over sky charts in a basement classroom, today’s scholars control computers and digitized instrumentation that can collect and analyze gigabytes of data to feed their ever-curious minds.

Exonians peer at the cosmos in this undated archival photo.


The early years

Astronomical observation and study began formally at Exeter in the fall of 1936, during Principal Lewis Perry’s tenure. The first combined astronomy and geology course was designed for juniors (now known as preps) and lower middlers (lowers) and made use of portable three-inch telescopes perched on the rooftop of the former Thompson Science Building (now the Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center). This elementary class promised teachings in constellation identification, Earth as an astronomical body, the constitution and motion of stars, erosion, astronomical instrumentation and observational work.

With paper, pencil and a stack of black-and-white photographs, students referenced Robert Baker’s "Introduction to Astronomy" textbook and reproduced Kepler’s famous derivation of the orbit and distance of Mars. The course was expanded the following year as a standalone class and the Academy bolstered its other science offerings, adding sections devoted to biology and geography in addition to physics and chemistry.

Student-run organizations like the Scientific Society and Astronomy Club thrived. And while sky glow from campus lights, sea haze and mandatory dormitory check-in hours made scheduling outdoor class sessions at night impractical, instructors noted at the time, these adventures occurred. Science Instructor Richard Brinkerhoff described one such event in a Bulletin article from November 1976:

“The lunar eclipse at 2 a.m. one night a year ago last May had a dozen students up half the night manning our 6-inch reflecting telescope and our new 8-inch Cassegrainian telescope, cameras and various measuring equipment.” Brinkerhoff’s goals for his astronomy course, he wrote, were “to give a solid theoretical background, to provoke imagination, to stimulate personal participation and to encourage self-confidence.”

Expanding the program

Through the 1980s, the bulk of work in astronomy class involved geometric problem-solving based on still photographs. Students would calculate the height of the mountains that were casting the shadows on the moon, for example, simply by knowing the date and time the picture was taken. Chemistry and Astronomy Instructor Chris Harper sought to expand the program with a permanent on-campus observatory.

Astronomy Instructor Chris Harper with students at the Grainger Observatory.

In an interview with The Exonian he said that the observatory would be “a voyage of discovery and a window on the cosmos and the unknown. … [a way to] bring Exeter into the twenty-first century.”

Harper’s ideas were received well. Principal Kendra Stearns O’Donnell ’31, ’47, ’63, ’89, ’91, ’97 (Hon.); P’00 wrote in support of the new facility: “Astronomy provides training in the basics of good science — accurate measurement and the analysis of data. It also involves a creative process. Through the investigation of the universe, we hope to engender in our students the thrill of discovery and exploration.”

With the full backing of faculty and students, and generous donations from The Grainger Foundation, the Grainger Observatory opened in October 1989. “When the observatory was built,” Blackwell says, “it brought in a whole different realm of seriousness to the science.” The original facility, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, included two domed observatories outfitted with large telescopes and an adjacent Chart House with a classroom, library and a darkroom to develop images from film.

An astronomy class around the Harkness table with Instructor John Blackwell in the Phelps Science Center.

Going digital

In 2002, a third dome with a robotic telescope was erected to capture data over longer periods of time and, in 2006, the Chart House darkroom was converted into a fully digital Harkness classroom. “Students began looking at variable stars and collecting data on stars that change — noting how some stars pulsate, others spin and some have spots that cause them to change their brightness,” says Blackwell, who was appointed director of the Grainger Observatory in 2004.

“Digital data gives us a better sense of what’s happening up there in terms of the seasons, our sun’s variability, the fact that there are eclipses and things like this, which can be numerically predicated using a lot of math.”

As computers evolved in the early ’90s, numerical data was able to be collected more quickly. By 2010, the data sets were gigabyte-sized. “No one blinks an eye at a gigabyte now — your cell phone has 250 gigabytes of storage on it,” Blackwell says, “but they’re actually building telescopes now that are going to collect on the order of four or five petabytes per night. That’s big data.” The present observatory collects five or six gigabytes in a one-hour class. “Every clear night, we’re gathering data that is parsed and processed here in the classroom using our computers,” Blackwell says.

The observatory shares its data with other schools and universities as well as with amateurs and professionals in groups like the American Association of Variable Star Observers. “We’ve had people use the telescope as far away as New Zealand,” Blackwell says. “They were collecting data for a star that’s only visible to the northern hemisphere. … They can control our telescope remotely, collect the data and download it.”

And this data exchange works both ways. Senior classes in astronomy have access to NASA data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and infinite quantities of sky surveys through telescopes around the world.

The Grainger Observatory’s 2019 upgrade, made possible thanks to generous support from The Grainger Foundation, comes at an exciting time in modern astronomy. Just this year, scientists discovered gravitational waves, produced the first coagulated image of the event horizon of a black hole, and designed a probe to look for life on Jupiter’s moon.

“There’s always something new coming out in astronomy,” Blackwell says. “That’s the constant awareness that drives student interest. What could we find by looking up there?”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.


collage of Exeter athletics images current and historic
Principal Bill Rawson walking along a path on Exeter's campus.

The Exeter Bulletin

The Exeter Way