Most students at Hohenfels High School in Germany are from U.S. military families posted overseas. Sometimes America can seem far away.
This month, the 11th and 12th graders in Joyce Dusenberry's astronomy class at the school made that distance shrink. From their classroom computer, they pointed a large telescope in California to study a place that's really far away: Jupiter.
"Every student in the class gave commands to the computer to control the telescope," Dusenberry said. "I saw excitement in the eyes of some students who had given up on science because they thought it was too hard or too boring. Being allowed to operate the telescope piqued their interest and hopefully reopened their minds to the joy of learning science."
With that online observing session, the students also became the first overseas participants in a five-year-old research and education partnership that has already enriched learning opportunities for more than 10,000 students in schools throughout the United States. The students and their teachers collaborate with scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and with education experts at the Lewis Center for Educational Research, Apple Valley, Calif., to use a big-dish radio telescope that's out in the desert near Barstow, Calif.
Students at four other schools serving U.S. military families stationed at overseas bases will also use the radio telescope in coming weeks -- two schools in Japan, one in South Korea and a second in Germany. Jim Roller, Lewis Center vice president for science and technology, said "We've been saying all along we could offer this program anywhere in the United States. Now it's worldwide!"
The telescope is one of several large parabolic antennas at the Goldstone complex of the worldwide Deep Space Network that JPL manages for NASA. It spans 34 meters (112 feet) from rim to rim and stands nine stories tall. NASA used it for years as a communications antenna supporting solar-system exploration missions such as the Mariners, Voyagers and Galileo. When newer communications antennas replaced it in that role, this big dish became the centerpiece of the Goldstone-Apple Valley Radio Telescope Project.
Students from upper elementary grades through high school use the telescope as part of a thoroughly planned curriculum aligned with state and national education standards. They interact with NASA researchers and analyze their observations for real scientific investigations. Their teachers complete a week of Lewis Center training in advance to learn the fundamentals of radio astronomy and prepare for using the project to strengthen lessons in teamwork and problem-solving.
At Hohenfels on Dec. 5, astronomy student Gabriel Valenzuela and his classmates linked by telephone and computer with specialists in the telescope's mission-control room at the Lewis Center. The time-zone difference made it 4:30 in the morning in California when it was 1:30 in the afternoon in Germany. The students got the dish pointed right at Jupiter, which was high in the sky over Goldstone at that hour. They collected information about the intensity of radio-frequency emissions coming from the powerful radiation belts encircling the planet.
"The results of their observations will be added to our research," said Dr. Michael Klein, manager of the Deep Space Network's science office. "The students are truly part of our science team." Jupiter's radio emissions vary from hour to hour and day to day. The steadily growing database from student observations over the span of months and years is important for interpreting how the large magnetic environment around Jupiter behaves, Klein said. It provides context for shorter periods of time when spacecraft, such as Galileo, can study specific regions of the radiation belts in greater detail.
Dusenberry praised the program's benefits for her students: "It gives them the opportunity to use some very sophisticated equipment to collect data that is not only used by them, but also becomes part of a data bank for scientists working all over the world. It gives them a feel for what real scientists actually do."
For more information about the Goldstone-Apple Valley Radio Telescope Project, see http://www.gavrt.org.
Contact: JPL/Guy Webster (818) 354-6278