When the Sky is No Longer the Limit: Deep Space Exploration with GAVRT
Author: Murray Henstock
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“I’m sitting in a classroom in Sydney, working with educators from all
over Australia and the United States, connecting online to a 34m wide Deep Space
Radio Telescope in Goldstone Apple Valley California measuring radio waves from
a galaxy 65 million light years away … and I’m in control”.
This was my thought as I pressed the ‘TRACKING’ command on my computer
sending a signal to California in the United States, causing a 500 ton piece of
machinery to begin moving where I told it to go.
Run in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) the
Goldstone-Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) is one of a small number of
large radio antenna being utilised for educational outreach programs around the
world. Since its official decommission from NASA’s service, it has been made
available for students to gain remote access, record and analyse radio signals
from a wide number of sources found in the observable universe. From quasars,
and galaxies millions of light years away to the magnetic flux of planet closer
to home like Jupiter and Saturn, the data gathered through the GAVRT program by
students is real data, from real sources and is making real contributions to
scientific understanding. There are also real and immediate applications the
students can contribute to through their work.
As teachers, we gathered for a 2-day workshop with GAVRT representatives
Len Ricardo (Former Operations Manager at
Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex), Dr David Jauncey (CSIRO) and Shannon McConnell (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to learn how
to operate the GAVRT Antenna remotely and how to engage students in the three
main outreach programs currently being offered through the GAVRT program. Over
the course of 2 days we were to become one of the first Australian Educators to
learn how to measure the magnetic flux of Jupiter and contribute to NASA’s
monitoring and planning of the current JUNO Space mission, take measurements of
distant quasars and galaxies and record and analyse broad spectrum radio
frequencies in the ongoing search for possible evidence of extra-terrestrial
intelligence as part of the SETI program.
The key aim was to discover how to get students active and involved in
these programs, operating the antenna remotely, recording, analysing and
discussing the implications of the data.
The hands-on practical learning environment this program provides opens
the door for a wide range of opportunities for students to engage in long term
data gathering and analysis. This fits perfectly with the requirements for the
new NSW syllabus for the science subjects such as Physics and Investigating
Science. Not only that, there are broad applications for other senior subjects
including ICT and Maths.
In addition it was evident how these activities can support the Stage 4
and Stage 5 components of the ‘Physical World’ and ‘Earth & Space’ syllabus
units. From Electromagnetic Spectrum to life cycle of stars, components of the
universe, planetary characteristics and features, through to space exploration
and long distance communication, mathematical computation, data limits and
analysis, building a wide range of numeracy skills and ICT capacity, the GAVRT
program has something to offer all students.
All three facilitators were amazing in their support and willingness to
share their experiences with us making the learning experience much more
engaging and meaningful. Within a short period of time we were operating the
equipment confidently and generating may ideas how we could use this capability
in our classrooms, schools and local communities.
Exciting highlights from the experience included watching the 500 ton
antenna move under our control. This simple visual connection is such a
powerful tool for engagement with students when they finally realise they are
in control of such a large piece of technology on the other side of the world.
Many students who will come to make use of the GAVRT antenna will have never
had the opportunity to connect what they do in the classroom to the wider
world, let alone the much wider galaxy and universe. The dawning realisation of
just what the implications of these activities mean will take a while to sink
in but when they do, the effect on the students will be profound.
The second major highlight came from using the GAVRT to measure and
record a wide range of radio frequencies across a patch of sky and subsequently
analysing the data, instructing the computer to ignore obvious signs of
interference or localised radio sources in an effort to uncover the elusive
signals from the distant reaches of our galaxies that only last for a second or
two in a very narrow radio band of frequencies. Once found these “Bleeps”
indicate a possible source of radio data that could be the result of
intelligent life. This exercise highlights the importance of repetition and
scientific methodology for if the same signal is found in the same place with
the same characteristics over the course of many observations and data
gathering events, it could become a viable candidate in the search for
Finally, being able to measure the flux of Jupiter’s magnetic field and
feed that data back into NASA for their own analysis that will assist them in
piloting the JUNO satellite though the very narrow ‘safe’ passages inside these
magnetic fields is an example of how students can contribute to real and
immediate science with long term implications.
I have already begun to take advantage of what I have learned through
this process and the excitement with my students is beginning to grow as I put
in place the pieces to allow us to get access to the GAVRT antenna and start
making cosmic recordings of our own.
Thank you to One Giant Leap Australia and Macquarie University for
hosting and organising the workshop, without your support these opportunities
would not be possible for our students.
So for now, keep your eyes on the skies and together we’ll see what’s
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