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Students control telescope, work with NASA scientists

By By ANNA M. LEE Assistant Editor
Brewton students are becoming scientists, thanks to a partnership with NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Lewis Center for Educational Research.
Brewton Middle School science teachers Debbie Godwin and Carrie Brown coordinate the program for 40 to 50 students from grades five through 12.
The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) project allows students to control a radio telescope, collect data and interact with scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Brewton Middle School's work on the project has been nationally recognized.
Using the Internet, students manipulate a 34-meter radio astronomy telescope located at NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert. They point the dish at targets in space and record their findings.
This year, students will work on two projects involving Jupiter and quasars.
The Jupiter Quest project allows students to measure temperatures in the planet's atmosphere and plot changes in Jupiter's radiation belts.
With the telescope, students and scientists can measure how much energy is emitted from an object in space. "That's what's telling these scientists about those objects," Brown said.
Brown compares the project to sighting a quarter through a drinking straw from a mile away. "If it were not for computers we couldn't do that," she said.
To prepare for leading students on this project, Brown and Godwin attended a five-day training course at Auburn University to learn radio astronomy and how to control the telescope.
Students must be trained to calibrate the antenna, direct it at specific targets and collect data and analyze it.
The first step is to train students in the use of universal time, the time standard that NASA scientist use, Brown said.
The antenna will operate in what is called a drift scan. This means that students will set the telescope in position, and as the earth rotates, it will capture the object of interest.
One of the most memorable parts of the project was when the group gathered last year at 4:30 a.m. to observe a meteor shower, said Brewton Middle School student Spinks Megginson.
Brewton Middle School has been participating in the project for six years.