Color image of radio telescope in the desert

January 14, 2005

A special campaign GAVRT: Rings In the New Year with Cassini-Huygens allows students in grades K-12 to take Saturn's temperature at radio wavelengths by remotely controlling a 34-m diameter antenna located at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex. The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) Project offers a unique opportunity for students to learn about science through radio astronomy while they are actually participating in authentic science instead of just reading about it . GAVRT is a science education partnership involving NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Lewis Center for Educational Research (LCER). The GAVRT Project currently involves students from 24 U.S. states and has American students in several countries in Asia and Europe through the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).

Teachers use a standards-aligned curriculum that allows students to understand science concepts as they operate the radio telescope. Students have the opportunity for reflective assessment as they hear how NASA scientists have used their observations and as they preliminary analysis their data. To operate the telescope, students connect via the Internet to LCER's Mission Control where trained operators assist the students to conduct remotely controlled radio astronomy observations. Students use computers to record the extremely faint radio waves collected by the radio telescope and analyze real data. In real time the students are able to derive an approximate thermal temperature and compare these values to data that has been corrected by scientists at JPL and other research institutions. Through this process students have the opportunity to become part of a science/education team, participating with scientists in ongoing missions and special observing campaigns. A small part of the radio emission from Saturn comes from lightning bolts or electrons caught in it's magnetic field, but most of the radiation picked up by the GAVRT telescope comes from blackbody emission. Blackbody emission is the radiation given off by all objects because of their thermal energy. The hotter an object, the more blackbody emission it radiates at all frequencies, and hot objects put more of their energy into high frequencies while cooler objects radiate a greater fraction of their output at low frequencies. For example, while the Sun emits plenty of radio waves, it is so hot that the peak of it's radiation comes out as visible light. Saturn is much colder, and hardly emits any visible light (although we can see it by reflected sunlight). Instead, most of Saturn's blackbody radiation is at infrared and radio frequencies. The amount of radiation from Saturn that we can see with the GAVRT telescope depends on Saturn's temperature, how far away it is, the angle at which the rings are shadowing the planet and reflecting radiation, and the chemical composition of the rings and the planetary atmosphere. As these things change, GAVRT observations keep track of the variations, supplying data to supplement the close-up observations of Cassini.

Students' measurements are often included in papers appearing in major scientific journals. Their science efficacy improves as students learn they can make valuable contributions to the world of science. Scientists value the student-produced data and the involvement of the scientists impacts the attitudes and abilities of students in the classroom.