What does Caltech, JPL, James Webb Space Telescope and PUSD have in common?
By Scott Phelps
Caltech, JPL, James Webb Space Telescope astronomers and the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO) presented a wonderful week-long astronomy program for 27 PUSD high school students July 11-15. The program was held each day from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm on the 9th floor of Caltech Hall where students could see much of Pasadena and its surroundings.
On Day 1, the students learned about the history of astronomy, observed the sun through solar telescopes, toured Caltech’s sun and climate-related facilities, built their own working telescopes and used them to make measurements of distance to far-away objects. For homework, they observed the moon through their telescopes and sketched its features.
On Day 2, the students learned about the transit method for detecting exoplanets (planets that orbit other stars than our sun) and how to use Python coding and Jupyter Notebooks to process data for the purpose of detecting planets. They finished by researching exoplanets and making group presentations on the planets of their choosing.
On Day 3, the students learned about the different kinds of spectra, practiced how astronomers determine the temperature of far-away objects, measured the spectra of unknown gases and determined their identities. They learned about the radial velocity method for detecting exoplanets and practiced using Doppler shifts in spectra to calculate radial velocity and determine properties of an exoplanet like orbital period, orbital distance, mass, density, and temperature.
On Day 4, the students took a field trip to JPL where they toured the facilities and observed two spacecrafts being assembled, including the long-planned Europa Clipper mission spacecraft. They saw the Mars rovers’ stand-ins up close and watched Curiosity’s twin practice moving in the Mars Yard. They visited the spaceflight operations facility or “mission control” and saw the ongoing tracking of various missions by JPL and the Deep Space Network.
On Day 5, the students got to sleep in, and started the program at 4:00 pm. They continued using Python and Jupyter Notebooks to process exoplanet data and learned how this would be used in their group projects for the coming year. They enjoyed a celebratory dinner and attended a Caltech Astronomy Outreach public lecture and guided stargazing with telescopes after dark.
Planet Finder Academy will continue with field trips and exoplanet project work for eight Saturdays over the course of the 2022-2023 school year.
The program is led by Caltech Professor of Astronomy Andrew Howard and serves as a Broader Impact component of his National Science Foundation (NSF) Mid-Scale Innovations Program Keck Planet Finder grant. Howard assembled exoplanet researchers and educators to design and share the program curriculum. The team included Dr. Jennifer Burt of JPL, Dr. Cameron Hummels of Caltech, Caltech graduate student Aida Behmard, and Dr. Arpita Roy and Sarah Jiang of the Space Telescope Science Institute (managers of the James Webb Space Telescope). Scott Phelps, adjunct astronomy instructor at the University of La Verne and Mt SAC and PUSD board member, also taught lessons and led activities with Caltech student and staff volunteer assistance. The program was coordinated by CTLO’s Associate Director Mitch Aiken.
One anecdote that illustrates the rare experiences that the students had was when on Day 2, Professor Howard approached a group making an exoplanet presentation. They had picked a planet named GJ 15 A b. He relayed that he had discovered that planet! He told them of its unofficial name, “Callatron”, named after his daughter Calla. Too cool!
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