Today, most of astronomy is done with the aid of a computer. Looking through a telescope to see an image of a planet or a star is very important, but the data is collected digitally using a computer. One branch of astronomy, radio astronomy, involves looking at a planet or a star using a radio telescope. A radio telescope is similar to a satellite dish which collects television signals and converts them into a visible image.
A radio telescope collects the radio signals emitted by the object in space and can convert them into a picture. In the spring of 1998, I was sent by my school for one week, to the Lewis Center for Educational Research in Apple Valley, California to be trained in the use of a radio telescope. One of the radio telescopes in Goldstone, California has been brought out of moth balls and dedicated for use by educators and students. The project is sponsored by NASA and linked with the Lewis Center. The project is called "GAVRT" or the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope project. The idea is that middle school and high school students can operate the radio telescope from their classroom, using a computer which is linked with the telescope, using the Internet. The students operate the telescope (34 meters or 102 feet in diameter) which is in Goldstone, from their classroom anywhere in the United States. During that time, they are in communication with the scientists at Mission Control in Apple Valley.
The first project, called "Jupiter Quest", involved collecting the radio emissions from the planet Jupiter in order to learn more about the planet, such as its varying temperatures. The project is scheduled during the months when Jupiter is in the daytime sky. This allows the students to collect the data during the school day even when the planet is not visible to the naked eye. The second project, which began in 1999, involved collecting data from our own sun and studying the varying temperatures on the sun, such as on the sunspots. One of the main scientists involved with the project is Dr. Michael Klein who has been a scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for over 30 years. He has been studying Jupiter during this time and also has been very involved in the SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).
This student project involves learning many introductory ideas relating to radio astronomy. I would gather my students together in the same room with the computer's large screen monitor so that everyone could see the parameters of the telescope. Then I would have two students at a time controlling the keyboard and managing the calibration of the telescope and the data collection. It is important to realize that a radio telescope does not use light waves (which are visible to the human eye) as a typical telescope does, but uses radio waves which are invisible to the human eye. The radio signals can be converted into a visible image of the varying temperatures on the sun. My students have only scratched the surface of what they can do in this project, but nonetheless, it is very exciting for me that we have the opportunity to use such an important and expensive tool of science. My hope is that their involvement in this project will help to spark more interest in a possible science career in the future.
Mr. Konstantine Papadakis is a teacher at South Pasadena High School in California. He has been in education for 15 years, teaching Honors Physics, General Chemistry and Principles & Techniques of Science in addition to being the chairman of the science department. For the past four years, Mr. Papadakis has also been the assistant coach for the varsity football team. His work experience in research includes time at the University of Southern California, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, California State University at Los Angeles and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.