A voice crackled over the speaker phone with instructions from Mission Operations in a scene reminiscent of Apollo 13. But for the Chula Vista High students gathered around the phone and state-of-the-art computer, the instructions were part of a “real life” examination of a far off world: Jupiter.
Chula Vista High physics, math and planetary science students recently took turns controlling a radio telescope nine stories high as part of a science education and research project that teamed them with scientists and teachers from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and The Lewis Center for Educational Research in Apple Valley, Calif.
Students controlled one of three radio telescopes that were operated simultaneously to measure Jupiter’s energy. The research is intended to decipher the extent and location of solar particles trapped in the magnetic field around Jupiter, similar to differentiating between pebbles and boulders. Students even helped calibrate the massive dish to make sure it was operating correctly.
“Knowing you’re trying to find something unusual out about the planet” was the coolest part of the project, said Arick Sandoval, an 11th grade physics student. He added that physics helped him understand this world on a “deeper level” than he ever had before.
Until recently, the student-controlled telescope was part of NASA’s Deep Space Network of antennae for tracking spacecraft. It is located near the Mojave Desert. It was decommissioned and going to be dismantled when the Lewis Center persuaded NASA to convert it into a radio telescope accessible to secondary students throughout the U.S. and, now, around the world.
“The partners involved have tremendous reputations and it has got to be a thrill for our students to work with NASA,” said Sweetwater Board President Arlie Ricasa. “This exciting hands-on demonstration not only improves students’ science literacy, it builds real enthusiasm for science. It energizes kids. And that can only help boost student achievement.”
The cutting-edge Distance Learning Center, with its top-of-the-line Internet access and audio and visual streaming capabilities, enabled the students to remotely control the radio telescope and record the results. The radio frequencies that emerged on the computer screen in graph form gave the students a window to a radio galaxy billions of light years awayone that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye.
“Kids on the cutting edge of science. It doesn’t get any better than that,” said David MacLaren, manager of the project’s curriculum and training.