Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium

Expanding Frontiers Winter 1997

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Table of Contents:


UW's Space Weather Forecasters

In a recent NBC mini-series, an astronomer discovers that an approaching comet has dislodged several giant asteroids, propelling them on a crash course with Earth. Space Fiction? Yes.

On January 10, shortly after midnight, a cloud of plasma from the Sun collided head-on with Earth at a million miles an hour. The cloud compressed the Earth's magnetic field, which is contained within the "magnetosphere" that shields the Earth's surface not only from such clouds but from the ever blowing solar wind. The collision induced intense auroras (i.e. the Northern Lights) at high latitudes and rang the Earth's magnetosphere like a bell, possibly causing the catastrophic failure of a $200 million AT&T communications satellite. Fiction? No, bad weather in space. This powerful solar storm might have passed largely unnoticed but for a new international fleet of satellites now in position to study the "space weather" that flows regularly from the Sun and sometimes disrupts communications systems, military radar, electrical power grids, and other electronic systems. Satellites saw the storm coming, making it the first such storm to be recorded from beginning to end by scientific instruments.

The timeliness of this first space weather forecasting success cannot be underrated. The Sun is a restless star, currently in a period of low activity in one of its 11 year cycles. In the year 2000, the cycle will peak with maximum solar activity which could create worse nightmares. At that time, long tongues of fiery plasma and energetic particles will leap from the surface from the Sun and rush out into the Solar System. A direct hit from one of these solar storms, like the one that occurred in January, could prove lethal to satellites and possibly to astronauts working in space. Among other things, a large storm could totally disrupt communications over large swaths of the planet and cause power outages capable of paralyzing major urban centers.

With just a little warning, though, the people who manage satellites and electric utilities might be able to limit damage by powering down damage-prone electronics or temporarily severing connections between power grids. But first scientists will need to figure out how to make accurate "space weather" forecasts of the complex interactions between the solar wind and the Earth.

Washington NASA Space Grant Director and UW Prof. George Parks, his staff and students in the UW Geophysics Department are among a growing number of scientists in the nation rapidly learning this intricate art of space weather forecasting. "The Sun-Earth connection has been going since the solar system was born," Parks said. "We now have the technology and the capability to study this fascinating problem.

The space weather team at the UW is involved in experiments on two of NASA's International Space Physics Program (ISTP) spacecraft, Wind and Polar. The Wind spacecraft, which is situated most of the time in the solar wind between the Earth and the Sun, includes experiments that measure a variety of solar generated particles spewed out by the Sun. The UW's high-tech particle experiment gives an immediate diagnostic about the Sun's activity. The UW's Polar experiment is ane ultraviolet imager (UVI) which takes pictures like a regular camera but in ultraviolet wavelengths. From its perfect vantage point on a satellite high over the north polar region, the UVI take pictures of the auroras. Auroras become extremely prominent and bright when the Sun is restless and acting up. Unlike ordinary cameras, which would only see the auroras on the night side of the Earth, the UVI can see the auroras on both the day and night side, providing a truly global view.

Using data from Wind and Polar and other ISTP spacecraft, the UW team is learning to read the weather, space weather. Their task is to predict and forecast the often hard to understand effects of bad space weather. There are always solar storms, large and small, to track, and using information obtained in the turbulent electrically charged oceans of space between the Earth and Sun, Park's team are learning to predict what might happen in the magnetosphere in regions where many satellites reside. They are practicing a new and ever more necessary trade, forecasting space weather.

A space weather pilot study is slated to start this spring. High school science teachers and students interested in participating in the study should contact the Space Grant office at 1-800-659-1943 or 543-1943 in Seattle.


Project Astro (1997-98)

Astronomy Education Project Looking For Seattle-Area Teachers In Grades 4-9

After being hugely successful in the San Francisco Bay Area, Project ASTRO is now coming to Seattle! The University of Washington is soliciting applications from Seattle-area teachers for the 1997-98 Project ASTRO which launches on July 18. This innovative program will link teachers and students in grades 4-9 with professional and amateur astronomers from the UW and elsewhere. Together, they will embark on exciting educational adventures. Funded by the National Science Foundation and by NASA, Project ASTRO was developed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the largest general astronomy organization in the world. The Project piloted in California in 1993 and now has 250 participants in over 150 schools and community organizations. Why so popular? The Project forms long-term partnerships between astronomers and educators, in which they both share their expertise to excite students about astronomy and help them learn the process of science.

"Over the years I've made many one-time vists to K-12 classrooms, but with Project ASTRO I'm excited to get involved in a much bigger way," UW Astronomy Prof. Woody Sullivian said. "With science and technology playing an ever larger role in society, it's vital to excite kids at an early age about how science and math work." Sullivan is the director of Project ASTRO in Seattle and is actively recruiting fellow astronomers for the program.

Once trained, astronomers agree to make at least four (and often many more) school visits a year, working closely with teachers to support classroom learning through a variety of activities. These may include: assisting with hands-on exercises, giving talks on astronomical discoveries, helping with science projects, organizing "star parties" for students and families, lending a hand with curriculum development, and serving as role models.

Project ASTRO is currently recruiting teachers with an interest in science and astronomy but who may not have much experience teaching the subjects. Teams of two teachers are also welcome. Schools and organizations (such as Scouts or Boys and Girls Clubs) with populations traditionally underrepresented in the sciences are especially encouraged to apply. For applications, please contact the Space Grant office at 1-800-659-1943, or in the Seattle area at 543-1943. The forms will be sent out in early March and must be received by April 15, 1997.

Twenty-five teachers and youth leaders from the Seattle metropolitan region will be chosen to help pilot Project ASTRO in Seattle. They will attend a required, two-day training workshop for academic credit, to be held on July 18-19, 1997 on UW campus. They will also receive a huge astronomy activity and resource notebook and become part of a growing network of Project ASTRO partners with ongoing opportunities to join in workshops and other activities.


To Infinity and Beyond

by Jenny Morris, Katie Myers, Lindsey Johnson & Maggie Ryan
5th graders in Fran O'Rourke's class, Cedar Wood Elementary, Everett, WA

In July, the Mars Pathfinder will land on Mars at the mouth of an ancient outflow channel called Ares Vallis, near the site of the 1976 Viking 1 Lander. Upon landing, the Pathfinder will open up and allow a six-wheeled robotic rover to drive out and begin exploring the Martian terrain. This small, 22-pound rover will be the first rover ever to explore the surface of Mars, sending back thousands of images never before seen of the Martian landscape.

On December 4, 1996, with support from Washington NASA Space Grant and other sources, teacher Fran O'Rourke and eight of her students and their parents were on hand to witness the historic launch of the Pathfinder from the Kennedy Space Center. Awestruck, they watched as the Pathfinder was launched aboard a Delta rocket. The following is the first-hand account from four fifth-graders at Cedar Wood Elementary.

"December 2nd was the official launch date of the Delta 2 rocket. It was scrubbed (delayed) due to a hurricane passing through Texas. The storm was going to hit Florida at the same time the rocket was to be launched.

December 3rd, the launch was scrubbed again due to difficulties in the ground computers.

On the 4th, the rocket was launched!

At Jetty Park, where we viewed the launch, it was pitch black and the only light was the rusty orange moon, the shooting stars and the blue and white glowing rocket on the launchpad. Standing with us, our teacher and our parents, were Brian Cooper, who will drive the Pathfinder rover in July, Dr. Edgett, who provides education for teachers, Dr. Joy Crisp, a geologist, Dr. Dave Crisp, a meteorologist, and other scientists and engineers from NASA's JPL. We were all excitingly waiting for the launch.

Suddenly, a blinding light and a booming sound filled Jetty Park! Cheers filled the air as the Delta II curved and sailed towards the moon. Halfway to the moon, the rocket boosters were released. They looked like sparkling stars falling from the Delta rocket. The rocket continued on and as it tore through the atmosphere, it looked like it was going right over the middle of the moon. All you could see was a bright dot fade into the darkness."


NASA's Summer Undergraduate Research Program

Not Just Any Summer Job

The NASA Space Grant Summer Undergraduate Research Program is currently recruiting students and professors for next summer. Now in its sixth year, this unique program identifies capable students, then matches them with professors conducting research in the student's field of interest. Last summer, over 50 students were placed in labs all over campus to do original research in fields from Aeronautics to Zoology. Freshman to seniors, they got a rare view of the day-to-day life of a working scientist.

Last summer, under the direction of Dr. Frieda Taub of the School of Fisheries, Sophomore Bethany Carlson continued her work on the NASA Fresh Water Habitat Project known as "Fish in Space." The project's ultimate goal is to send fish onto the space station for long-term studies of the effects of zero-gravity on the life cycle, reproduction, and growth of vertebrates. One of Bethany's tasks was to maintain a semi-enclosed aquatic model in which fish could thrive. Dr. Taub was so pleased with her work of the previous summer that she had asked her to work part-time throughout the school year and again as a full-time researcher in the following summer.

Clearly, the rewards of a summer job in a UW lab are not only academic. Space Grant students earn a salary all summer and are often asked to return in the fall. At least half of last summer's workers now enhance their studies with part-time jobs in research.

Students also have the invaluable chance to present their research. Each student makes a 10 minute presentation at a weekly meeting for peers and staff. They also make a scientific poster representing their work which is displayed at the Space Grant Reception in the Fall.

The NASA Space Grant Summer Undergraduate Research Program offers a taste of what a career in research is all about. Applications for students interested in next summer will be available in early March and are due March 31, 1997. Professors interested in hiring a student, please contact the Space Grant Program at 543-1943.


Sign Up for a Tour of Space

Geophysics 425

By popular request, the NASA Science and Engineering Undergraduate Research Seminar (Geophysics 425) this spring will again focus on the theme of Rocks and Stars. Over 100 students enrolled last year. Offered by Space Grant's Associate Director Janice DeCosmo, this 1-credit class gives learners a brief but exhilerating tour through the world of space science. This year, the presentations will focus on space exploration, stellar evolution and planetary geology. Geophysics 425 is also open to the public and will be offered on Thursdays from 2:30 to 3:20 p.m. in Room 118 in the Physics and Astronomy Building through June 5.

The first talk in the series is entitled, Where Do Come From? A Cosmic Viewpoint by Astronomy Prof. Bruce Balick. When asked for a preview, Balick replied, "As we chase our roots down to the very nuclei, electrons and subatomic particles of which we're made, we ultimately run into the Big Bang itself." Balick's talk will explore these subatomic origins and the processes that produced them.

The following is the schedule of this year's dynamic speakers:

For more information about the lectures, please call the Space Grant Program at 1-800-659-1943, or in the Seattle area at 543-1943.


Mini-grants to Enrich K-12 Classrooms

In February, 100 of our state's K-12 teachers will receive mini-grants in amounts of up to $250 from the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The funds will be matched by school districts and other sources, giving teachers up to $500 to be used to enrich the study of science and mathematics in their classrooms. The long list of items funded this year include: microscopes and other tools that scientists use; botanical growth tanks; models of the human body; kits to build radios and rockets; equipment for data-collection at Washington's creeks and coastal waters, and telescopes to view the planets and the stars. The grant forms are easy to follow and well worth the time. Applications for next year will be sent out with the WSGC fall newsletter. Please contact the Space Grant Program office for more information at 1-800-659-1943 or 543-1943 in Seattle.


Out Of This World!

The Pacific Science Center is headed for the final frontier with a fantastic new exhibit called Alien Worlds. Opening in Seattle in early 1998, this nationally touring exhibition will focus on the solar system, and introduce visitors to the basic physical characteristics of the planets and the possibility of life existing somewhere in the universe. Partially funded by the National Science Foundation, Alien Worlds is a collaboration between the Pacific Science Center and the Search for Exterrestrial Intelligence Institute. A guaranteed blockbuster, the 7,000 square foot exhibition and its accompanying events will reach over three million participants in a ten city tour.

"We've had so many requests!" Laverna Kashmir, Pacific Science Center Administrative Specialist for Program Development and Education, said. "All 50 states want it."

The exhibit will feature, of course, aliens, aliens lovingly designed to live in particular planetary environments. Gimbling Snickersnacker, for example, will be a clamlike creature, whose shell protects it from the intense heat. Slithy Mimsy Trove, will be a tall and gangly exterrestrial with very thin supports because of his planet's low gravity. Slithy will wear sun goggles and like his other alien friends, he will be completely animated by a computer program. "The upper part of his body will expand in and out, his breathing rate the same as humans," Kashmir reported. Burbling Bandersnatch, another member of this other-world family, will fly.

Children visiting the exhibit will receive Cosmic Passports which will direct their exploration of the exhibit and will include questions to be answered. Upon completing all their tasks, young visitors will receive the Official Cosmic Traveler's Seal.

Adult Cosmic Travelers will also have a chance to enjoy the exhibit's exciting educational components:

When Alien Worlds opens in Seattle in 1998, a billboard six miles away from the science center will read YOU ARE APPROACHING THE END OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM. Visitors will be able to drive through the solar system, built to scale. "After you see Pluto, you'll drive for a mile and half to get to Neptune," Kashmir said. "Everyone here is excited about this exhibit!"

More information about Alien Worlds will be provided in future newsletters.


Coming Soon to Space Grant

Space Grant Summer Undergraduate Research Program
June 17-August 23, 1997
Student applications due: April 15th

GLOBE Teacher Training Workshop
University of Washington
March 24-28, 1997