Students at 25 middle schools and high schools in 13 states are remotely controlling huge radio-telescope dishes in the California desert from their classroom computers this fall and winter.
Their work will aid studies of Jupiter to be made by NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it flies past that planet. The students are using telescopes near Barstow, Calif., at the Goldstone tracking station of the Deep Space Network, which the Jet Propulsion Laboratory operates for NASA.
Students' monitoring of natural radio-wave emissions from Jupiter's atmosphere and radiation belts over the next few months will help with the interpretation of measurements that Cassini will take during a few days in early January.
"We know that the radio emission from Jupiter's radiation belts changes over time, and we want to know whether Cassini is looking on a normal day or an unusual day," said Dr. Scott Bolton, a physicist at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., and a Cassini science team member. "The observations the students collect will be our primary gauge to determine the state of the radiation belts."
The students' data will also be used to calibrate Cassini's radio gear for scientific studies to be conducted after the spacecraft reaches its main destination, Saturn, in 2004.
Courtney Smith, a junior at Redlands East Valley High School in Redlands, Calif., keyed numbers into a classroom computer one recent evening as other students clustered around to watch. Another computer in the room carried a live picture via the Internet of the 34-meter-diameter (112-foot) dish that Smith's commands were steering, about 200 kilometers (about 120 miles) away. She pointed the radio telescope a little to one side of Jupiter, then did a scan across the disc of the planet while other students wrote down measurements of radio-wave intensities the telescope detected at different wavelengths.
The telescope is the Goldstone-Apple Valley Radio Telescope, one of a group of large radio-antenna dishes at the Goldstone tracking station. This antenna was formerly used for communications with NASA spacecraft, the main mission of Deep Space Network stations around the world, but it now is available for schools' use through a partnership of the JPL, NASA and the non-profit Lewis Center for Educational Research, in Apple Valley, Calif. The Lewis Center develops lesson plans and conducts teacher training to get maximum educational benefit out of students' use of the telescope. A second 34-meter dish at Goldstone is also being used by students in the project to support Cassini.
"I've found that students who participate in this really show a lot of interest in science, and it whets their appetites," said Joe Monaco, Earth sciences teacher for the Redlands students.
Brian Dansereau, a Redlands East Valley junior writing down measurements of Jupiter's radio emissions, said he likes the unpredictablilty of this real research, compared with textbook learning. "It inspires you to go on and do more in science," he said.
Other schools participating in the project range from Sanford Middle School in Opelika, Ala., to University Public School in Detroit, Mich.
The research helps students understand that visible light is not the only way to see the universe. "In visible light, we see Jupiter's atmosphere, its clouds, its Great Red Spot," said Dr. Michael Klein, manager of the Deep Space Network's science office. "At some radio frequencies, we see deeper into the atmosphere and measure its temperature. At longer radio wavelengths, the students are measuring emissions from the radiation belt around Jupiter that you can't see with your eyes, but that is being generated by electrons and protons zipping around Jupiter at close to the speed of light."
Cassini is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, manages Cassini for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.
Further information about students' use of the Goldstone telescopes and about Cassini's Jupiter flyby is available at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/jupiterflyby .
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