High school students from California and Virginia will help NASA pinpoint the planet Pluto's location next week, contributing to the U.S. space agency's plans for a future mission to the distant world.
They will use a remotely controlled telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California to observe the planet in a rare close pass in front of a known star.
The observing campaign is part of Telescopes In Education, a program partly supported by a NASA grant that allows students to control a refurbished 60-centimeter (24-inch) reflecting telescope from their classroom computers. Using the remote technology, students can aim the instrument, determine the exposure of a celestial object and receive digital images that can be enhanced in the classroom.
The students will observe Pluto on June 21, when the planet is within 5 arcseconds --about 1/360th of a degree or 0.003 the diameter of the full moon -- of a star catalogued as SAO 140,853. The planet will move past the star at about 80 arcseconds each day, permitting useful observations over several nights.
"Careful observation of the planet's close approach to a star of precisely known coordinates will permit comparison with Pluto's previously known position and motion, and improve our calculations of the planet's orbit," said Gilbert A. Clark, manager of the joint Telescopes In Education project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Mount Wilson Institute, a private association that operates the observatory.
"If their data warrant an update in Pluto's orbit," Clark added, "the accomplishment of these young people may be published in appropriate astronomical journals."
The student observations will supplement those made by Dr. William Owen, JPL astronomer, and by other professional and student astronomers.
"This observing campaign, if done carefully by a group of observers, could be as much as 10 times more accurate than any single Pluto observation made before," Owen said. "It could be very influential in fixing Pluto's position."
The effort to improve calculations of Pluto's eccentric orbit at the outer edges of the solar system was sought by a JPL team working on development of the Pluto Express pre-project, a possible NASA mission currently under intense study to launch two tiny spacecraft on a fast exploratory flight past the planet and its satellite Charon in the next decade.
Spacecraft navigators must locate their targets accurately in order to capture good science data, said Robert Staehle, Pluto Express pre-project manager at JPL. Because Pluto has never been approached by a spacecraft, its navigation data are entirely dependent on Earth-based astronomy and need improvement. Astronomers have only been able to observe the planet and calculate its position and motion for about one-quarter of its orbit around the Sun since it was first discovered in 1930.
"This observation program can help us plan the first mission to Pluto," Staehle said. "The Pluto team has already received a lot of good, inexpensive technical help from students, and we welcome their continuing efforts to help us map Pluto's orbit. It's very useful for both parties."
Students making the observations using the Mount Wilson telescope will be at Apple Valley Science and Technology Center, an adjunct to the Apple Valley School District in California's Mojave Desert, and Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Va. These two groups are senior collaborators in the year-old, nationwide Telescopes in Education project, according to Clark. They took part in the 1993 Telescopes in Education prototype testing and continue to be among the most active users.
The Apple Valley center opened in 1990 after a five-year community development effort. The center includes an observatory, a computer and telecommunications center, a weather station and other scientific facilities, serving district schools at the kindergarten through 12th grades and supporting other school districts as well. The center is operated by volunteers, a local foundation and the Apple Valley School District.
Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, designated the Governor's School for Science in northern Virginia, has a planetarium and various science and technology laboratories supporting its course work and that of neighboring elementary and intermediate schools. It was founded in 1985 as a result of a partnership between the public schools and the business community.
Telescopes in Education is a special activity of the Mount Wilson Institute, developed with California Institute of Technology and industry donations, volunteer assistance and special support from institute's director Dr. Robert Jastrow.
In addition to the telescope, automation and Internet communications, the system includes operating and image-processing software that is commercially available to participants using their own personal computers. A grant from NASA's Office of Space Science and the NASA Information Infrastructure Technology and Applications Office to the Mount Wilson Institute supports all school operations.
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