Carson High School students have joined with citizen scientists across the Sierra to explore the hidden recesses of outer space, which might help understand the origins of the universe.
“This is firsthand experience, getting the kids involved in real science,” said astronomy teacher James Bean. “The data these kids will help collect will be used by scientists to get information on how the solar system was formed.”
Residents joined students at the Jack C. Davis Observatory at Western Nevada College this weekend to study Kuiper belt objects — large, frozen bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.
Students spent Friday night into Saturday morning hoping to track the movement of the most famous Kuiper belt object, the dwarf planet Pluto.
Observers in Carson City joined 12 other towns stretching from Tulelake, Calif., to Tonopah to watch as Pluto passed in front of a star, blocking its light. The process is known as occultation, and it’s the principal method of study being used in the Research and Education Cooperative Occultation Network. The network is led by Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and Professor John Keller of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
Each town was to calculate how long Pluto was in front of the star.
Knowing the distance between towns that record the event allows Buie and Keller to calculate the size of the Kuiper belt objects.
“The only other tool we have for direct size measurements is to send a spacecraft on a visit,” Buie said. “Our project can do nearly as well but with a vastly lower price tag.”
Dominic Kinder, 17, has always been interested in astronomy but studied it for the first time this year as a junior, and he was eager to be a part of the project.
“It is pretty exciting because this is going to be the last time in a while we can see this happen,” he said. “We’ve been learning about this stuff most of the year. It’s cool to take our learning and actually apply it, actually get to see it.”
Nearly a dozen students participated in Saturday’s study, some earning regular or extra credit. Others came just to experience it.
“I’m just doing it for fun,” said sophomore Lake Shank, a chemistry and astronomy student. “Stars and Pluto ... it’s just so exciting.”
While Pluto did not pass in the expected path Saturday, Bean said it was not a waste of time.
“We still collected data,” he told students. “Even though the results may be negative results, it’s still helpful because they can use our location to determine it wasn’t here.”
Using telescope and camera equipment provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, students will participate in 10 coordinated observations over the next 18 months.
For more information about the project, visit tnorecon@net or contact Bean at firstname.lastname@example.org.