The same telescope that U.S. Air Force Academy cadets will use to capture data on satellites shuttling through space will give local high school and Penn State students the chance to learn first-hand about the galaxy and what’s in it.
“It’s going to be an amazing opportunity for students to do real science,” said Julie Coder, a chemistry teacher at Bellefonte Area High School.
That opportunity, the Falcon Telescope Network (FTN), brings together the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado with the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) at Penn State, one of 12 partner sites around the world where telescopes are being stationed. The initiative, run out of the Academy’s Department of Physics’ Center for Space Situational Awareness Research (CSSAR), will provide training for future officers and learning opportunities for K-12 and college students.
Tom Taylor, senior research engineer at ARL and the principal investigator at Penn State, spearheaded the initiative at Penn State after learning about it while visiting the Academy in Colorado Springs for another training program for cadets. The program, he noted, gives Air Force officers real experience using telescopes.
“They’re trying to create a hands-on environment for their cadets, so when they graduate they’re better prepared as Air Force officers,” Taylor said. “We feel Penn State has a tremendous strength to do educational outreach with the telescope.”
The Penn State telescope, stationed near the University Park Airport in August and known as the PSU-Falcon, was one of the first of the 12 to be installed. Once operational, the telescopes will be remotely accessed and operated by the cadets from the Academy in Colorado Springs. Teachers like Coder will be able to make requests for observational data from any of the stations.
“Our students are going to have access to this network of telescopes,” she said. “Most students don’t have access to a small backyard telescope, never mind a network of telescopes with sites all over the globe.”
She was part of the initial outreach team at Penn State that traveled to Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado, where the first telescope was later installed. She said she and other teachers are now working to include the program in their curricula and it will give students an opportunity to grapple with real-world issues.
Students will be able to request observations during certain points in time. Once the observations are made, the data will be sent to them for use in classes and clubs.
Mars dust storms, moons of other planets, near-Earth objects and measuring movement in the sky are all potential subjects students could focus on, Coder said.
“Students have the ability to discover exoplanets and find and report things that haven’t been discovered before. How neat would it be for a student to say, ‘I made an astronomical discovery.’”