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Amateur Astronomers Keep an Eye on the Future

Student access to Haleakalā’s Faulkes Telescope North inspires critical thinking and teamwork. “It was a fantastic experience.”

April 22, 2010
Cindy Schumacher

For thousands of years, we have gazed up at the sky, questioning our place in the cosmic order. But the science of the cosmos has changed immeasurably since ancient civilizations pondered the mysteries of the Milky Way.

“Today our amateur astronomers, teachers and students have more opportunity than ever before to observe the cosmic highway,” said J.D. Armstrong, Ph.D., Maui technology education and outreach specialist at University of Hawai‘i’s (UH) Institute for Astronomy (IfA). “Astronomy is a great way to spread interest in all subjects and motivate learners to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to better understand the world around us.”

Armstrong manages UH’s time on the two-meter Faulkes Telescope North (FTN) located at the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory Site. (The Faulkes Telescope South is situated at Siding Spring, Australia.)

Article Photos

Noah Yap has had an opportunity to do something extraordinary. The eighth grade student from ‘Īao Intermediate School is seen here in front of the Faulkes Telescope North atop Haleakalā.
Photo courtesy of Isla Young

The FTN, which is used for research, is also available to students around the world.

“The amazing thing about the telescopes is that they are remotely controlled via the Internet,” said Armstrong. “The whole telescope system is housed inside a state-of-the-art clamshell enclosure designed to operate automatically.”

All that is needed to control it is a PC and an Internet connection. The robotic nature of the telescope enables excellent images of astronomical objects to be sent within minutes to computer users.

“There is significant telescope time available during regular school hours for students world-wide,” added Armstrong.

“The idea of giving youngsters access to world-class telescopes immediately appealed to me,” said Dill Faulkes, a British software entrepreneur.

In an attempt to use astronomical research to inspire students’ critical thinking and technical understanding, he provided access to a global network of robotic telescopes.

“The purpose is to foster understanding of science, mathematics and technology through research-based education,” Faulkes said.

Mission accomplished: Noah Yap, an eighth grade student from Maui’s ‘Ïao Intermediate School in Wailuku, has had an opportunity to do something extraordinary.

“Dr. Armstrong helped me design a project that allowed me to track laser beams being shot off Haleakala towards space,” said Yap.

In order to figure out if the PanSTARRS program was impaired by the light of the lasers, Yap worked with Dr. Armstrong and members of the Laser Ranging Station located atop Haleakala.

“I learned how to use some astronomy software such as Stellarium, NASA Horizons Web Interface and photometry,” said Yap. “I was allowed to control the FTN remotely from my computer.”

After several nights capturing images with the FTN, Yap realized the laser does indeed affect the PanSTARRS program.

“We were able to help solve a real-world problem and save the PanSTARRS program a lot of money,” said Yap.

Yap’s sister, Chloe, a freshman from Baldwin High School, became familiar with the FTN while attending a weeklong summer astronomy program called “HI STAR.”

“I became interested in the stars and chose a project focused on hot young stars,” she said.

Chloe used the FTN to observe stars’ accretion disks, which contain dust, asteroids and other space materials, and could possibly turn into planetary systems similar to ours. While collaborating with Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Emilo, an astronomy professor from Brazil, she monitored the variability of these disks and compared the data to other models.

“My favorite part is the possibility that I might actually discover something new about the universe,” said Chloe.

Chris Morris, an eighth grade student from Haleakala Waldorf School, is also working on an FTN project with Dr. Armstrong.

“My project is on the planetary nebula NGC-2346,” said Morris. “I am studying the light of the center star to determine whether or not there is dust in front of the nebula. Earlier studies showed that the brightness of the nebula varies, and a dust cloud could be the reason.”

Morris analyzes photos taken by the FTN and uses photometry software to measure the amount of light coming from the center star.

In another part of the world, Christina Larkin and Catherine O’Prey from Victoria College in Belfast, Ireland, have used the FTN to recover an unusual asteroid that is one of a class of very rare companions of the planet Mars. It had been spotted by the U.S. near-Earth asteroid survey LINEAR in 2007, but had not been observed since then. These young women searched for it by remotely controlling the FTN on Maui.

“We found it in the last bit of sky we observed,” they said. “It was a fantastic experience.”

“The Faulkes telescopes enable students to develop critical thinking skills and teamwork,” said Armstrong. “Through astronomy, we can connect with nature in a way more pristine than through anything we could do on Earth. And, I get to share this with the kids and the international community.”

For more information, visit LCOGT.net, www.Faulkes-Telescope.com, www.ifa.hawaii.edu or call Armstrong at 573-9500.

 
 

 

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