Carson High School students join scientists to explore outer solar system
April 19, 2013
Residents and students from Carson High School and Western Nevada College's Jack C. Davis Observatory will help scientists study Kuiper belt objects — large, frozen bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.
Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and Professor John Keller of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, will lead the project.
"Understanding KBOs will help us better understand the very first days of our solar system," Keller said. "These objects haven't been changed significantly for more than 4.5 billion years."
Over the next two years, Carson City will be part of the Research and Education Cooperative Occultation Network (RECON), a citizen science research project exploring the outer solar system.
The most famous KBO is the dwarf planet Pluto. Using telescope and camera equipment provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, people in this area will participate in 10 coordinated observations over the next 18 months.
At predicted times, the shadows of KBOs and asteroids that pass between Earth and a given star will briefly hide the star from view, an astronomical event called an occultation.
The exact paths of the KBOs' shadows are unknown.
Observers in Carson City and 12 other towns stretching from Tulelake, Calif., to Tonopah will watch during the occultations.
"All of the communities will be looking at the same star doing the same science at the same time," Keller said.
"The project will be a team effort involving volunteers in multiple communities to collectively accomplish cutting-edge science that couldn't be done without them. The enthusiasm of local schools and citizen scientists has been tremendous."
Knowing the distance between towns that record the event will allow Buie and Keller to calculate the size of the KBOs.
"The only other tool we have for direct size measurements is to send a spacecraft on a visit," Buie said. "Our project can do nearly as well but with a vastly lower price tag."
Three Carson High School teachers, Jim Bean, Scott Vickery and Curtis Kortemeier, as well as other Carson City residents completed training last week at the Jack C. Davis Observatory. Observations will begin as soon as May 3 for an occultation of Pluto.
When not in use for the research project, the astronomical equipment will be available to schools and community groups.
Bean, an astronomy and physics teacher at Carson High School, said he is eager to involve his students.
"Determining the sizes of these objects will help us better understand their formation and composition of the KBOs," he said.
"This information could tell us a great deal about the origins of our solar system. This is a chance for students to get involved in the telescope operations at the observatory, collect and analyze real scientific data, work with a team of scientist and also learn a great deal about the celestial objects that inhabit our night sky."
Anyone interested in participating in the observations can contact Bean at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the project, go to http://www.tnorecon.net.