Our clubs, electives and confluence times are busy and varied in the Middle School. Sometimes we have these classes at different places, with activities such as rock climbing and biking, but this fall we had an astronomy class that met at a different time -- night time! A few students worked with me on an exciting science project with an 11 inch reflecting telescope to take real data for an NSF funded project about our solar system. This project is ongoing and now I have more students trained on how to set-up and use the telescope and video camera, along with the software to analyze our data. I will continue to train more students during electives this winter and spring. The trouble is, we really have to do most of the work at night, but there are data analysis sessions that can be conducted during school hours.
The project is called RECON, or Research and Education Collaborative Occultation Network. I have been involved with the network for over three years now. It is a network of several schools and other communities from Canada to Mexico that work with three eminent astrophysicists to collect data on Kuiper belt objects (those rocky worlds near Pluto). One of these scientists has discovered no less than 1000 of these objects orbiting our sun in the far reaches of our solar system.
The trouble with these Kuiper Belt objects is that they are small, too small to see in all but the gigantic telescopes. However, we can see a star "disappear" for a few seconds, if one of those rocky worlds passes in front of that star. That eclipse, otherwise known as an occultation, is just what we are trying to detect and record in this "citizen-science" project. There's so much uncertainty about the orbits and sizes of these objects that this network of over 50 stations, all pointing telescopes at a point in the night sky at the same time, can get information on the size and shape of these elusive objects past Pluto.
We are taking real data that is being published in the scientific literature. There is no other network of telescopes organized like this one, and the scientists are gaining valuable data from our work. This fall our students helped to collect this data by recording star fields at particular times. There are more opportunities, including some this week (if we don't get clouded out by a snow storm!)
The students, in the meantime, are learning all about telescopes, data collection, light curve analyses and solar system astronomy. Pictured above is our meeting with some of the RECON scientists and other team members at Sisters High School. For more information about this exciting scientific opportunity, please visit www.tnorecon.net.
In between our scientific data collections, we are also enjoying our observations of the moon, Saturn, Mars and some distant galaxies and other deep sky objects. The sky is not the limit of the astronomy that we enjoy in this class! Oops, sorry about the pun - but this class is out of this world, and our data has come to us at light speed! I know you are groaning now, but at least you are not in the dark anymore about RECON and our telescope.
- Anne-Marie Eklund, Middle School Science and Health Teacher; 7th Grade Advisor