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Governor's School students tour observatory

March 28th, 2007 12:18 am by Staff report

ABINGDON - Students from the Linwood Holton Governor's School traveled to Green Bank, W.Va., March 23-25 and ended up exploring the far reaches of the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.

Ensconced in an underground bunker on the grounds of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the students commanded a 40-foot-diameter radio telescope to conduct their own astronomical research. Students from the counties of Bland, Dickenson, Wise, Tazewell and Washington and the city of Bristol participated.

Rather than studying the stars and bright objects typically observed in optical astronomy, the students detected the natural radio emissions coming from the following celestial objects: 3C 405, a Seyfert galaxy which has a nucleus about 10,000 times brighter than the center of our galaxy; 3C 218, also known as Hydra A, a radio galaxy with a double lobe extending from the center; 3C 248, or Hercules A, a powerful double-lobe radio source that shows unusual features such as a double optical core and a string of radio intensity rings in one of its two lobes; and Cygnus A, which has two radio-emitting lobes.

"During this field trip, students became scientists, collecting data just as a radio astronomer would," said Dr. Steve Rapp, Linwood Holton Governor's School science instructor. "They were able to target and get data on Blazars, objects billions of light-years away and the most energetic objects in the universe. ... NRAO personnel were impressed with the student research effort and have invited them to submit a proposal to observe these objects using the giant 140-foot-diameter radio telescope."

Rapp and his students will correlate this data with data they have collected from the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Cosmic radio waves travel at the speed of light through interstellar space and can be detected by the sensitive instruments at the Green Bank observatory and other observatories around the globe. Green Bank is unique, however, because it is in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone and also home to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT).

The GBT is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. Taller than the Statue of Liberty with a dish larger than a football field, the GBT also is the most massive moving structure on land and is used by scientists from around the world to study objects such as planets in our own solar system to quasars billions of light-years away.

For this field trip the students were taught how to use a special educational telescope that the observatory maintains to help teach the fundaments of radio astronomy research.

"This is the best part of my job," said Sue Ann Heatherly, the NRAO's education officer in Green Bank." These students have no fear of electronic gadgetry. They march right in here and take control of the telescope. During their short stay at NRAO, the kids definitely get a feel for what it's like to do astronomy research. Who knows, some of them may become radio astronomers one day."

The students also enjoyed the hands-on experience of the NRAO's new multimillion-dollar Science Center. A centerpiece of the new Science Center is the 4,000-square-foot exhibit hall. The exhibits are based around the theme "Catch the Wave!" which highlights both the physics of radio waves, and the fun of being swept along by the interactive displays. These displays are intended to immerse visitors in a real-world research environment and to allow them to experience the enjoyment and wonder of science and engineering.

Among the exhibits are a model of a pulsar that visitors can "take for a spin," wavelength demonstrations of various stripes, a 3-D model of the constellation of Orion, and a working scale model of the GBT.

"The new Science Center represents a great leap forward in our ability to provide educational programs in astronomy and radio astronomy. Not only can students and the general public do more and have more fun while they are here, but we have the space now to accommodate larger groups," said Heatherly.

The NRAO has full-time science educators on staff to guide students through the experience and to answer general and technical questions from visitors. The site is located in Pocahontas County, W.Va., on Routes 92/28, approximately 25 miles north of the city of Marlinton.

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