Projects will help NASA study Earth and the solar system
By Angel Roy
It has been 20 years since the University of New Hampshire-made Compton Telescope, or COMPTEL, was flown to the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory by the space shuttle. Weighing in at 17 tons, COMPTEL was the heaviest piece of equipment ever to be brought to space at the time. The observatory came down in 2000.
Now, two equipment prototypes built at the UNH Space Science Center (SSC) will be tested on balloons for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in September in hopes that they will help better answer questions about the unknowns of the solar system.
“I continuously run across people that say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this stuff was going on at UNH,’” said UNH SSC Professor and Department of Physics Chair Mark McConnell. McConnell and his colleague Professor James Ryan specialize in high-energy astrophysics.
Not only does UNH have to compete for NASA grants with other universities but also government labs and private industry, Ryan said.
“We do not always win, but we do better than average … Sometimes UNH is a secondary institution on other people’s proposals,” Ryan said. “It all depends on what people’s strengths are and what they can contribute to a successful program.
One advantage of the balloon testing, McConnell said, is the time frame involved.
“It fits in well with the typical time frame of a graduate student’s career,” he said. “If we have a large space mission, the development, design and fabrication of an instrument could take six, seven years and that really doesn’t fit in well with graduate students. A balloon program like this could potentially be a three- or four-year program.”
Students, he noted, have an opportunity to participate at all levels of such projects including design, fabrication and data analysis.
“Students love this stuff … this is out of the ordinary; not many people get to do this stuff,” Ryan said. “It’s a privilege to be able to work on things that contribute to human knowledge of the universe, and in the process we train students in state-of-the-art technology.”
The SSC received a $750,000 grant from NASA for a three-year effort on the development of its new gamma ray detector. FACTEL, the prototype of the new gamma ray detector built by a graduate student and a few undergrads, is a much smaller, lighter and more efficient version of the COMPTEL. The prototype will be flown on a thin balloon, ribbed with fiberglass strips, above 99.9 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, or 130,000 feet, from a desolate area of Fort Sumner, N.M., in September. While it will be launched far from all air traffic and freeways, Ryan, who oversaw both FACTEL and COMPTEL, said false reports of a UFO will be unavoidable.
Data will be recorded onto a USB drive in the prototype. After a day of floating, the balloon will be punctured to allow for the payload and its parachute to fall to the ground. A corrugated paper crash pad will absorb the energy and another explosive charge will separate the parachute from the payload to prevent it from dragging once it lands.
Ryan expects the prototype, and eventually the final version of the telescope, to detect gamma rays emitted from such space occurrences as black holes, pulsars and solar flares through the mass of cosmic rays that will blur the view. Gamma rays, Ryan said, are 20 to 220 times as energetic as a typical X-ray.
“They would see through your teeth, through the film — it is very penetrating radiation,” he said. “They are used when investigating what kind of nuclei are at work in the object we are looking at. You can see the signatures of such elements as silicon, neon and carbon.”
Cosmic rays are very energetic. “They’re really zipping right along there at the speed of light,” Ryan said.
Manufacturing and assembly for COMPTEL was done at institutions with those capabilities, such as aerospace companies but the SSC now has the infrastructure to meet the needs for building something under even the strictest NASA standards, Ryan said.
“Our shop is indeed an incredible asset for a lot of our hardware,” McConnell said. The pressure vessel for GRAPE was, however, contracted to an outside engineering firm.
Data collected from FACTEL, which if approved by NASA will be flown into orbit by a rocket when it is finished, will give insight as to how energetic rays from solar flares are and what they’re composed of.
“We want to understand how they are happening in the first place, how they produce cosmic rays with this enormous energy … there is still a lot to be learned,” Ryan said.
McConnell is overseeing the building of the GRAPE (Gamma Ray Polarimeter Experiment) prototype that will also be tested on a balloon in New Mexico this fall. At 130,000 feet, the GRAPE prototype will carry an array of 16 X-ray and gamma ray detectors (the real model is designed to hold twice as many).
“We’re looking to measure the polarizations of those radiations, which is something hasn’t really been done before … it can provide some clues as to how the radiation gets generated and, if we are trying to understand a particular source in the sky, why it generates gamma rays,” McConnell said, adding that the more observations astronomers have at their disposal, the more they can pin down their models of space occurrences.
While GRAPE is currently funded by a three-year NASA grant, the project has been in development for nearly 15 years, McConnell said. Two graduate students and a handful of undergrads are now working on the experiment.
“In some sense it wasn’t a new idea but … as the technology for radiation detection has improved, it has become a simpler thing to try to implement,” McConnell said.
The largest part of SSC funding is being used for the MMS (Magnetospheric Multi-scale Mission), scheduled for launch in 2014. The mission, McConnell said, involves a set of small satellites designed to study the Earth’s magnetosphere, which is the magnetic environment around Earth.
“We will be studying the magnetic field and how it interacts with sun and solar wind, and how the particles behave in that environment,” he said. “It will allow us to further study … so-called ‘space weather.’”
Three students at the SSC (two graduates and one undergrad) are working on a project that will never make it into space but, if successful, will make its mark on the world.
The $1 million NSPECT project was commissioned by the United States government and is being funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Department of Defense. The instrument is similar to the FACTEL in that it was designed to be sensitive to gamma rays, but NSPECT also has the ability to detect neutrons, which “is a big deal because neutrons come from plutonium, uranium and stuff like that that should not be coming through an airport,” Ryan said, adding that the device could also be used by state police, border patrol and the Coast Guard.
“They all have needs for detecting fissionable nuclear material,” he said.
They come in peace
Local space enthusiasts help with NASA outreach
By Adam Coughlin
Perhaps the most famous day in space exploration is July 20, 1969. Sally Jensen was on Lake Winnipesaukee’s Long Island watching the events of the day — man surpassing imagination as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon — on a fuzzy television. But even more, Jensen delivered a play-by-play of what was happening to a blind friend. This would be the first but not the last time she was a voice for NASA.
Years later, Jensen would join about 500 other space enthusiasts from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as a member of the Solar System Ambassadors Program, a outreach program designed to inform the public of the happenings of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The program kicked off in earnest in 1997 as a result of the success of the Galileo Ambassadors Program, which followed the Galileo mission. The program is sponsored by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is the lead research and development center for NASA.
For Jensen, applying to the program (prospective ambassadors must fill out an application for one-year ambassadorships) was a natural extension to a life-long love of outer space. She taught science and social studies for more than 30 years before retiring. But even retirement couldn’t keep her away and she still teaches in Waterville Valley.
Jensen knows first-hand the impact a positive space experience can have on a student — as the Apollo 11 missions did on her — but she also knows what a bad experience can do. Jensen had a double class, about 80 kids, on Jan. 28, 1986. Again she was gathered around a television, but as the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the sky killing its crew members, including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, Jensen was lost for words. She said that incident turned off many of her students, who no longer dreamed of going to outer space.
Jensen, who did not apply to be the teacher in space as McAuliffe did, said the impact these events have shows just how important the work of an ambassador is. She said the media no longer covers in great deal what Jensen described as “The Golden Age of Space Exploration.” So the onus falls on the ambassadors.
“I’m too old to be an astronaut,” Jensen said. “But my role is still important. Every space mission has to have outreach. We are in essence the voice of NASA.”
Ted Blank is also a voice of NASA. Whereas Jensen has been an ambassador for more than 10 years, Blank is in his first year with the program. But like Jensen, who is also a Messenger Educator Fellow (Messenger is the satellite that took seven years to travel to Mercury) and a New Horizons Fellow (a satellite photographing Jupiter), Blank is a member of New Hampshire Astronomical Society. In fact, he said he does more of his outreach with that program than with the ambassador program because it is more well-known.
When ambassadors perform outreach it can be in a variety of venues including schools, clubs and organizations. Blank said a group could read in the paper that Mars was supposed to be close to Earth and so they contact him to find out more. He said he is asked to speak on a variety of questions and either answers himself or finds the most suitable person. After making a presentation, he files a report with the Solar System Ambassadors Program, as each ambassador must do a minimum amount of outreach each year.
To stay current, he reads books on science, space science and amateur observation. He also does his own observing and writes about it at beachastro.blogspot.com.
As a self-proclaimed life-long learner, Jensen loves having to stay involved and constantly learning new things. One of the reasons outreach is so important, according to both Jensen and Blank, is so people understand how their tax dollars are being used.
“Sometimes people think if it’s $1 billion dollars for a space shuttle that money is just launched into outer space,” Blank said. “In reality, those contracts go to large and small companies here on Earth.”
But even more than understanding dollars and cents, ambassadors genuinely love outer space and want to share it with the public, especially young people.
“Space is fascinating,” Jensen said, “because it shows you Earth is just an interactive piece in the atmosphere, and the more we learn, the more we know about our piece of the puzzle.”
“I like to share the joy of scientific discovery,” Blank said. “We are lucky enough to live in the age of space exploration. Sharing these concepts can help kids make an internal and emotional connection with the universe.”
Besides waiting for people to request his services, Blank goes out and practices sidewalk astronomy. He brings his telescope to the sidewalks of a heavily traveled area, like Hampton Beach, and waits for people to ask him what he’s doing. Then he’ll have them look through his telescope and see the wonders of the universe.
“We call it guerrilla astronomy,” Blank said.
Blank said NASA’s unmanned robotic space program is healthy. The Cassini-Huygens probe has been photographing Saturn since 2004 and has been extended to 2017, according to Blank, who said it has been enormously successful. He also mentioned the robotic spacecraft Dawn, which just reached Vesta, one of the largest members of the asteroid belt, and will then head on to the dwarf planet Ceres, making it the first mission to orbit two different bodies in the solar system.
As the United States takes a hiatus from manned space flights, Russia, Japan and China will still be putting astronauts into orbit. If America wants to continue its dominance in space, the task will fall to the next generation of scientists. Jensen said kids are as excited as ever about space, and her participation in Mindflight (mindflight.plymouth.edu), an educational program, has reinforced this belief.
“When you understand, it will make the night sky more like a home,” Blank said. “Once you feel at home looking up at the night sky, you will start to embrace the rational.”
To request a Solar System Ambassador visit www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/index.html.
NH Astronomical Society helps people look closer
By Briana Palma
Darkness began to set in Goffstown, taking over the sky gradually like a rising tide does the seashore. Attention shifted upward. Some gazed north with squinty eyes while others stood at telescopes, eight of them lined up in the middle of the field, their styles ranging from hand-crafted and wooden to futuristic-looking and battery-operated.
“Have you got a star?” one man asked another, who, with one eye closed, looked through his telescope.
“I think I’ve got a star,” he said, a hint of excitement in his voice.
A few moments later the confirmation came from a girl in the crowd. “It’s right there!” she said, pointing and looking up without any technological assistance.
The night’s first star had made its appearance and others soon followed suit as the eight telescope-owners, all members of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS), invited the public to glance through their powerful lenses and “ooh” and “aah” over the wonders of outer space.
NHAS is a non-profit organization that focuses on education and outreach. It comprises about 140 members — nearly all hobbyists rather than professionals — though, according to President John Bishop, a core of 30 to 40 really get involved in the society’s activities and initiatives, including Skywatches. At these nighttime events, members set up their personal telescopes and share their passion for astronomy with an often awestruck public.
“One of the neatest things at a Skywatch ... is for them to look up at a galaxy or star cluster and say, ‘Oh, wow,’” said Marc Stowbridge, chair of NHAS’s Public Observing Committee. “It doesn’t matter how old they are; that ‘Oh, wow’ is what we’re after.”
“I’ve never had someone pshaw the thing, or say, ‘Is that all there is?’” he added. “We’ve never had a bad review. People are just excited.”
Members of NHAS put on Skywatches at the request of local libraries, schools and other groups, such as boy and girl scout troops. Still, the society’s calendar includes three monthly appointments open to the general public: at McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, Margaret and H.A. Rey Center in Waterville Valley and Market Square in Portsmouth.
Downtown Portsmouth lends itself to the most fun and largest Skywatch events, with 300 to 500 people stopping to examine the sky on a busy night, said Matt Amar, co-chair of the group’s Educational Outreach Committee.
“Portsmouth is very active and we’re right in Market Square,” he said. “I get a big kick out of people walking by and watching me set up a telescope. They always ask, ‘Is there something special going on in the sky?’ and I usually smile and say, ‘There’s always something special going on in the sky.’”
Amar, Stowbridge and other members host Skywatches on a volunteer basis, agreeing that the public’s positive reaction is payment enough for the gig.
“For the core members like me, part of the real enjoyment is showing someone Saturn’s rings for the first time,” Amar said. “And it’s amazing how many people have never looked through a telescope and seen the craters of the moon.”
Stowbridge, however, admitted the feeling of goodwill isn’t the only perk of the job.
“We do get a lot of cookies and milk,” he said. “Lemonade in the summer and cocoa in the winter.... It’s a wonder we don’t have chocolate smeared all over things.”
In addition to being actively involved in Skywatches, Stowbridge is the brains behind NHAS’s popular library program, which allows community members to take out a telescope just as they would a book. The idea first came to Stowbridge when he read “The Star-Splitter,” a Robert Frost poem about a farmer who burns down his house to collect insurance money, which he then spends on a telescope.
Stowbridge put the plan into action in 2008, after a library said “thank you” for a Skywatch by donating several hundred dollars to the society. “I thought, ‘We really need to pay this forward and we ought to use it to get them a telescope,’” Stowbridge said. “I had been thinking about getting telescopes into town libraries before that, but it was a great opportunity.”
To ensure everyone, not just astronomy enthusiasts, could take advantage of the program, Stowbridge came up with a series of modifications on a beginner’s table-top telescope, such as replacing stock eyepieces with a single zoom and attaching strings to easily lost parts like lens caps. NHAS also substitutes the telescope’s 30-page manual — good only for people whose “geek-quotient is particularly high,” according to Stowbridge — with nine easy-to-understand index cards.
And though participating libraries acquire their telescopes in different ways — NHAS has donated some, while others have been purchased by the libraries or their community members — each one also comes with a “foster parent,” a member of the society who serves as a liaison and provides the equipment with a little TLC whenever necessary.
Since the first telescope landed at Tamworth’s Cook Memorial Library, the program has gotten international attention and spread to 25 libraries throughout New Hampshire, with plans in the works to double that number in the next few months.
“There’s not a negative thing to say unless it’s about the weather,” said Stowbridge, who added that many libraries are forced to keep a waitlist for the use of their telescopes. “Everybody is enthusiastic and thrilled.”
And that ‘everybody’ includes NHAS, as the program is a point of pride for its members and an extension of its educational mission.
“We want to teach somebody that there’s more to be seen than there is at first glance,” Stowbridge said. “You’re not just teaching astronomy; you’re teaching everything. Take a second look at this, look at it a little closer, use technology of one sort or another and be amazed.”
Planet or airplane?
How to get a view of the universe
By Jeff Mucciarone
Get outside at night and look up. But first, try to get away from the lights.
“The best thing you can do is to get out of the city,” said Tiffany Nardino, education coordinator at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord. “Just because there’s so much light in the city. It makes it difficult to see a bunch of stars.”
Nardino said she used to live closer to the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester and her view was minimal. She had trees and three-story houses all around her. All she could see was straight up.
“You could see a couple stars but nowhere near a lot,” Nardino said.
Getting out of the city, look for an open field or the top of a hill, someplace that gives you a wide and clear view of the night sky. If getting out of the city isn’t an option, try to find a high hill that gets above the urban glow, she said.
And then it’s simple: look for stars.
Try picking out some constellations. Look for different colors. Try to spot a planet.
Ever since her fourth-grade teacher did a unit on astronomy, Nardino has been looking up.
“I think it’s wonderful to look at the sky and realize how small I am, and how small Earth is, compared to this huge galaxy we live in,” Nardino said. “This huge universe, we know so little about it. I just find that fascinating.”
In the middle of August, the premier nighttime skyward event is the Perseid meteor shower, when shooting stars are in abundance. On Friday, Aug. 12, the Center will host a Perseid Pizza Party with a presentation on meteor showers and what creates them. Staff members will be stationed outside to help people watch, weather permitting.
And while a telescope or even binoculars would help people see more, Nardino said there is absolutely no equipment necessary for stargazing. If you’re interested in a particular constellation, a star chart would be helpful.
“A pair of binoculars is a great tool. A telescope is great too,” Nardino said, adding she usually brings along binoculars. “But you don’t necessarily need that. Just gaze up at the stars and see what you can find.”
Telescopes or binoculars would help stargazers pick out nebulae or a galaxy, something the naked eye might not be able to.
Be patient. It takes, on average, 20 minutes for the human eye to adjust to the dark, Nardino said.
“You can’t just go from staring into the headlights of a car...to looking up for stars,” Nardino said. “Your eyes need time to adjust. Don’t be staring into the flashlight.”
Newbies want to take into account a few considerations. Bring bug spray, certainly during warmer months. Also, think about dressing in layers, even in the summertime. People can begin to feel cold on a summer night just sitting still looking up, Nardino said. Particularly if you have to walk some distance to your stargazing location, bring extra clothing to be prepared for cold or wet weather. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop into the 50s at night in New Hampshire during the summer. Safety is something to consider as well, so bring a flashlight and be aware of wildlife that might be around, she said.
Standing and looking up can often result in a stiff neck. Nardino said she likes to bring a blanket so she can lie down when she’s stargazing, which she likes to do at nearby town fields. She also suggested bringing a chair that allows for reclining.
For newcomers, the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (www.nhastro.org) is a huge resource. The Society will help newcomers with the basics, including simply showing them how to use a telescope, Nardino said.
“They’re just folks that really love astronomy,” Nardino said.
Nardino said stargazing is not the type of thing where you need to go to a specific place because it’s better than another.
“It just depends on where you live,” Nardino said.
Checking the weather is important as well, naturally. No one wants to be trying to stargaze in a downpour. But stargazers don’t necessarily need a totally clear night. Partly cloudy might mean clouds will clear up for an hour between 10 and 11 p.m. WMUR, for example, provides satellite radar that would show layers of clouds that might help stargazers predict an opening in the sky. Check the weather at your home first. If you can’t make out a single star right outside your house, chances are you won’t be able to see much of anything down the road where you were going to stargaze, Nardino said.
The Discovery Center, together with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, hosts a star watch the first Friday of each month. The Astronomical Society sets up their telescopes on the lawn at the Discovery Center and people are free to take a look. The star watch outside is free, but regular admission applies inside the Center.