Air Force Academy Telescope connects Penn State to the galaxy

Project will give K-12 and college students chance to work with telescope data

The project team guiding the Penn State Falcon Telescope into place. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

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.’”

Francis Chun, director of CSSAR and the researcher overseeing the project, said the plan for the initial 12 telescopes is to have five in Colorado, one at Penn State and one in Hawaii and five overseas, including one in Chile and another in Australia.

By having the telescopes stationed at points around the world, observations can be made from more than one perspective.

Chun said one of the goals of the outreach effort is to interest more American students in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“A lot of the students in the graduate programs are coming from abroad and it’s harder and harder to excite our own students involved in a STEM career,” Chun said. “We’re hoping by partnering with colleges and universities with Falcon Telescopes, we can use the network to bring a little STEM not just to higher education, but to K through 12 as well.”

So, during the regular school day, students will be able to collect observations of something in the universe from a telescope halfway around the world where it’s nighttime.

The 20-inch telescopes have cameras with a very narrow field view. Chun compared it to “looking through a soda straw. You can see into the Milky Way and other galaxies, planets transiting other stars.”

In addition to the outreach, the telescopes will be part of the Academy’s astronomy courses when cadets are learning observational techniques.

Christopher Palma, associate head of the undergraduate programs in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, will work with astronomy majors interested in using the telescope and with teachers across Pennsylvania who want to work with the data in their classes.

“This will be a real asset to students from K to 12 through college,” he said. “In K to 12, students rarely get a chance to use a telescope. The Falcon telescope will give students an opportunity to obtain authentic astronomical images that can be used to get a real understanding of how astronomers use those images to study these objects.

“We expect that many students are going to consider using the FTN to obtain data for research projects for different science competitions, such as the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science.”

For undergraduates, he said, the telescope is a great option to follow up on discoveries of exoplanets that transit in front of their parent star.

The Academy is providing the telescope equipment, and the partners, such as ARL, are providing support for operations and maintenance. The PSU-Falcon is expected to have its “First Light” kick-off — when the telescope captures its first images and the event is shared with K-12 students — in December.

Said Taylor: “PSU-Falcon enables a great opportunity for Penn State and the local educational communities to access a world-class astronomical resource and create a strong long-term working relationship with the cadets and faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Last Updated September 30, 2014