Chesapeake Students play “I Spy” with Asteroids
By Mike Connors
April 6, 2015
Science students at Deep Creek High School are playing a cosmic version of “Where’s Waldo?”
Only in this game, Waldo is constantly on the move and his location isn’t limited to pages in a book – it spans the skies.
The students are searching for asteroids. If they find one, they have a chance at history.
Roughly 60 freshmen in the Science and Medicine Academy, based at Deep Creek, are involved in the project through the International Astronomical Search Collaboration.
The program, for high schools and colleges, allows students to study astronomy in a hands-on way. More than 500 schools participate, said Patrick Miller, the program’s director, but many are in foreign countries.
Deep Creek is in a program campaign called Pan-STARRS, which uses a facility developed at the University of Hawaii’s astronomy institute. One goal is to discover asteroids and comets that might pose a danger to Earth. Broad Run High in Ashburn is the only other Virginia school in the campaign, which began in March and runs through the middle of this month.
Donna English implemented the project when she started teaching at Deep Creek two years ago. This semester, earth science students are involved, though she has given it to other classes in the past.
“They get to see what real scientists do,” English said. “It’s not just theory.”
About once a week, English receives astronomical images from Hawaii of our solar system. The students then get together in small groups and study them on laptops.
Asteroids – fragments of rock or metals left over from the formation of the solar system – are not easy to find, even for the keenest eye. They can have diameters the size of small rocks. Most orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Their orbits are generally circular, but they are oddly shaped and can fall like a poorly thrown football. About once a year, an asteroid hits Earth’s atmosphere, creates a fireball and burns up before reaching the ground, according to NASA’s website.
The search requires patience. Looking at magnified portions of the night sky, students scour their screens for any streak that might be an asteroid. Entire classes can pass without seeing anything.
It also requires teamwork. On a recent Tuesday morning, Tikiyah Ivey, Caleb Wirt and Sondai Riddick huddled together, their faces inches from the screen. Ivey pointed to a possible finding.
“There it is again!” Wirt exclaimed as the group recorded its report.
“It’s like if your mom says you’re not getting anything for your birthday – then brings in a present,” Ivey said.
Reports are sent to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University, which collects information on astronomical objects. If the center confirms a report, it declares a preliminary asteroid finding. As of Thursday, 19 Deep Creek students had made such findings this semester, English said.
If it is found again in seven to 10 days, the asteroid becomes provisional. Scientists then study it for about six years to refine its orbit, before it can be named.
Since the astronomical search program debuted in 2006, there have been about 10,000 preliminary and 1,000 provisional findings, Miller said. Only about 50 asteroids have been named.
The chance to take the first step brings life to class, said Chloe Hall, one of five group members at Deep Creek who made a preliminary finding in mid-March.
“It’s better than just taking notes,” she said.
English sees many virtues in the program. Students gain real-world experience, viewing images many others don’t know exist.
Students also learn that experiments don’t always bring success. They log reports even when they haven’t seen potential asteroids.
“Not every set is going to have an object in it,” English reminded a class last week. “And that’s OK.”
Students enjoy that their lessons are not traditional. Recently, English briefly taught from the front of the room, then moved from group to group, helping the amateur astronomers solve problems.
They also are thrilled at the chance that they might someday name an asteroid.
“I’m not really an astronomy person,” admitted Gabrielle Turdici, another student who has made a preliminary finding. “But I think this is pretty cool – the excitement of making a discovery.”
You can also read this article on Pilotonline.com.