More than a decade of effort by over 200 students from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, culminated this summer as students worked with NASA engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to prove their solar telescope worked.
The telescope is called "GoldHelox" -- a name that comes from the Sun's golden color and its ability to make 'heliocentric' observations in X-rays. It is designed to be flown aboard a future Space Shuttle mission; aboard the Shuttle, the telescope can detect solar X-rays obscured by Earth's atmosphere.
"Once in orbit aboard the Space Shuttle, GoldHelox will take 250-300 images of the Sun," said Jonathan Barnes, a senior physics major at Brigham Young who worked on the telescope's optics. "It will provide a real-time movie of solar activity."
In 1988, another Brigham Young physics student, James Maxwell, had an idea for a research paper, and the project was born. Maxwell now has a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Since GoldHelox's inception, many of the undergraduate students on the original team have earned advanced degrees. Many have gone on to work in the space industry -- and some have become NASA scientists and engineers. The broad range of talent on the team has included students majoring in physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, manufacturing engineering, design engineering, business and even English majors who have written technical and public relations documents.
Today, many students and advising faculty are working on the project. "Everyone has learned a lot from this effort," said Barnes. "We built GoldHelox on the Brigham Young campus and then the people at Marshall helped us conduct tests that proved the telescope's optics work. In the process, we learned a great deal that will serve us well after we graduate."
Through Marshall's Technology Transfer Office, a Space Act Agreement was signed by NASA and Brigham Young University. The GoldHelox project benefited from the Marshall Center's expertise in managing the development of the world's most powerful X-ray observatory -- the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF). Scheduled for launch next year, AXAF will study objects ranging from comets in our solar system to quasars at the edge of the observable universe. AXAF was tested in Marshall's X-ray Calibration Facility -- the same facility used by Brigham Young students to test their telescope.
"The test facility at Marshall was ideal," said Barnes. "It had an ultra-clean environment needed to assemble the telescope's sensitive optics and a huge vacuum chamber to test how well GoldHelox will function in the cold, airless void of space."
The entire team at the X-ray Calibration Facility got involved in the project. "It was a great way for the students to get actual hands-on engineering experience in a unique, world-class facility," said Jeff Kegley of Marshall's Vacuum Engineering Test Branch. "We used our experience working with top scientists on AXAF to help the students learn how to conduct tests on space telescopes."
The tests at Marshall showed GoldHelox's optics will detect X-rays and image them on film. The GoldHelox science objective is to detect X-rays emitted during solar flares and observe other solar activities that affect Earth. Variations in solar activity influence Earth's climate and weather patterns and can damage both space- and ground-based communications and power systems.
"Being able to predict major solar eruptions would help us protect these systems," said Deric Eldredge, a Brigham Young senior majoring in electrical engineering. "GoldHelox will look for microflares which may be precursors of periods of intense solar activity, just as minor tremors on Earth happen before major earthquakes."
The project has already accomplished its main objective by enhancing the students' educational experience. "This project gives students opportunities unlike other academic experiences," said Dr. Pete Roming, a former GoldHelox project manager who now has a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy. "It helps prepare them for industry or graduate school and furnishes them with the skills that make them more marketable after graduation."
The students' next goal is to arrange for the automated GoldHelox to be carried aboard a Space Shuttle mission, so it can make its observations above Earth's atmosphere, which obscures solar X-rays. As the Space Shuttle orbits Earth once every 90 minutes, the Sun is in view for observations for about 20 minutes of each orbit.
The students are seeking additional funds to complete the project and fly it aboard the Shuttle. Students working on the project today are testing the telescope's tracking system -- which will help aim it at particular areas on the Sun for observations; preparing paperwork to qualify the telescope to fly as a Space Shuttle payload; and signing on experts to help them interpret the solar images GoldHelox will return to Earth.
Note to Editors:
GoldHelox is only one of the many education projects supported by NASA's Marshall Center. To find out more about NASA's education programs during this celebration of American Education Week, check out the NASA Spacelink Web site at: http://www.spacelink.msfc.nasa.gov
Interviews and photos supporting this release are available to media representatives by contacting Ed Medal of the Marshall Media Relations Office at 256-544-6525. For an electronic version of this release, digital images or more information, visit Marshall's News Center on the Web at: http://www.msfc.nasa.gov/news
For more information on the NASA Technology Transfer Program, contact the Marshall Center's Tech Transfer Web site at: http://www.nasasolutions.com
The GoldHelox Brigham Young faculty advisors are professors J. Ward Moody, Paul Eastman, R. Steve Turley and Vern Jensen. To learn more, visit the GoldHelox Web site at: http://www.physics.byu.edu/Research.htm
For interviews with students or faculty members, please contact the Brigham Young University Press Communications Office at 801-378-4377.
Materials provided by NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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