NECC ’09: Year of Astronomy / NASA

Jim Lochner, explaining how to use Student Hera
Jim Lochner, explaining how to use Student Hera

With Dr. Jim Lochner (USRA (Universities Space Research Association) of the NASA/GSFC Astrophysics Science Division, talking about bringing the International Year of Astronomy (<= THIS IS THE MAIN WEBSITE FOR IYA2009) into the classroom with NASA data.

GSFC is Goddard Space Flight Center.

Astrophysics Science Division is one of several science divisions at GSFC.

It’s 2009:  Lincoln’s anniversary, Darwin, Galileo’s moons of Jupiter, moon not a perfect sphere, International Year of Astronomy, lots of anniversaries.

Goals for the Year:

  • Dark Sky awareness: decreasing light pollution
  • She is an astronomer: highlighting women in science, UN Millennium Project
  • Preserve Astronomically significant archaeological sites around the world.
  • Galileo Teacher Training Program: heighten awareness of these programs, rich useful astronomy activities like the phases of Venus and moon mapping
  • Galilean Nights (October 23-24, 2009) [Star Parties]
  • Cosmic Diaries: Astronomers blogging about their lives.
  • Everyone to look through a telescope at least once this year: the Galileoscope.

Astronomy data analysis offers students applications in science and math concepts; opportunities to improve research and inquiry; engagement in real-world problem solving; understanding relationships between data and theory; connection with NASA and other scientific institutions; experience of what real scientists do.

NASA has PETABYTES of data from sattellites, manned exploration, and research progreams.  One petabyte is 50 times the print collections of the US Library of Congress.  Data gets bigger with every mission!  Making the data available and usable is part of NASA’s core mission.

Jim works for the HEASARC, which has 16 terabytes of data from 26 sattellite observatories in High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center.  Largest collection of X-Ray and Gamma-ray data from stars, black holes, pulsars, supernova remnants, and galaxies.

Astronomers from around the world download the data via Browse – a HEASARC tool developed before Internet browsers even existed.  We have to download a client to our computers.  Students use “Student Hera”, a scaled-down client tool for analyzing HEASARC data.  It’s easy to use in the classroom. There’s a set of webpages that act as a tutorial in using these tools. The teachers’ guidelines for this tool are here.

Types of analysis that astronomers do on this data, and what Student Hera allows students to analyze.

  • Timing: how the intensity of X-rays from objects vary over time.  Stars, binary stars, black holes, and pulsars are critical
  • Imaging: see where the x-rays are coming from, on supernovas, and galaxy clusters
  • Spectroscopy: measuring the full spectrum of light, as well as energies x-rays coming from stars and galaxies
  • TIMING; Objective is to determine the period of a binary star. Example: if a black hole and a normal star are in the same system, you can measure how fast the normal star orbits the black hole.  But you need to observe the x-rays over time. The more x-rays, the more material is being pulled from the star.   So the x-rays will vary if the star is in an elliptical orbit, and the xrays won’t vary if it’s in a locked orbit.  Middle school students should be able to identify the LIGHT CURVE, but high schoolers may be able to generate a FOLDED LIGHT CURVE… not merely identifying the period length, but averaging several periods in order to design a clear lesson plan.  The folded light curve or light curve will also have the disk of gas around the black hole, in the way.
  • IMAGING: Students search the images of supernova remnants in different energy bands.  From gamma-ray data they discover as astronomers did, a new supernova remnant.
  • Note: Students are accessing data that’s already been analyzed.  The NASA archive works like this: an astronomer asks for a data-set.  A group of astronomers approve the use of sattellites & observatories to do those observations. The asking astronomer gets exclusive rights to that data for one year, when it, and the paper describing it, are added to the Archive.  So students are duplicating analysis of existing data, yes… but they’re ALSO reviewing the literature, and building and understanding of how astronomers work.
  • SPECTROSCOPY: Examine a supernova remnant.  This is an exploded star and “element factor”. What elements were created durign the supernova, and what was the star originally cooking?  The spectroscopic analysis reveals the emission lines revealing what elements were released.

One students have mastered the basic analytical skills, they begin exploring a number of other objects. The tutorial has them do one light curve, but there are numerous other light-curves to work in. Tutorials parallel historical research done by science, so you can verify your results against the actual scientific literature.

Classroom uses: Assign students in groups or as individuals to work out the initial tutorials. Integrate with lessons on mission design and technology. Students look at real data from real sattelites.  Use with related lessons on Imagine the Universe!  The timing tutorial is also available as a 2-hour lab experience for Year 1 College students in astronomy courses (developed by Dr. Beth Hufnagel, Anne Arundel Community College, MD).  This guided web course track student progress.  (There is also Starchild, a tool for K-6 educators and students, if Hera seems inappropriate for your students).

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