36 Bright High Schoolers Tracking Asteroids At Tech

SOCORRO, N.M. June 16, 2009 – Three dozen bright high school students are spending six weeks at New Mexico Tech tracking asteroids through the Summer Science Program.

Since 1959, the program has exposed teenagers to the world of astronomy, instrumentation, scientific analysis, astrophysics and a wide variety of guest lecturers.

The students arrived in Socorro on Sunday, June 14, and will live on campus for six weeks.

Director Richard Bowdon said the fundamental design of the program hasn’t changed significantly over the last half-century. The instruments have changed. Students now use digital images and computerized telescopes; they also write software to characterize the orbit of an asteroid.

Bowdon enrolled in the program as a high school student in 1974. The Summer Science Program is the only such program that is owned and operated by its own alumni.

Working in teams of three, the students will first learn how to operate the telescopes at Etscorn Campus Observatory at New Mexico Tech. The observatory has eight telescopes, but the students primarily use a 4.5-inch Takahaski and a 14-inch Celestron. Both are equipped with digital photography equipment and computerized controls.

“They learn to find the asteroids, point the telescope, make an image and how to analyze the image,” Bowdon said. “They will find stars of known position in the same image as the asteroid and use them to measure the position of the asteroid. Because asteroids are moving in the sky all the time, they don’t know exactly where it is until the find it and measure it using specialized software.”

Over a period of weeks, the students track their asteroid and make a series of observations. They then write their own software to calculate the asteroid’s orbit.

“It’s not original research because astronomers have been doing this kind of thing for a long time,” Bowdon said. “But the observations are new and will be submitted to the Minor Planet Center to improve the orbit calculations for these asteroids. So, these students are applying classic astrophysics to an original data set.”

The faculty team is Dr. Don Davis of the Planetary Institute in Tucson and Dr. Bill Andersen, physics professor from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. The Program also brings in four teaching assistants.

Dr. Dan Klinglesmith, affiliated with the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, provides technical support to the students at the Etscorn Observatory.

Throughout the six weeks, the students are treated to a series of exciting guest lectures. Seems like a contradiction in terms? Bowdon said program organizers select the speakers based on both a vibrant topic and an engaging style. Topics range from geomicrobiology and astrophysics to entomology and counterespionage at Sandia National Lab.

Students also take several interesting and educational field trips, including the Very Large Array and the Apache Point Solar Observatory. The students will also get to use the 2.4-meter telescope at the MRO. Those who finish their assigned project first, get the first chance at using the MRO facilities.

The Summer Science Program is highly competitive; more than 300 budding scientists apply for the 72 positions (36 in Socorro and 36 at the Program’s other campus in Ojai, Calif. Most of the applicants already are qualified to conduct research, Bowdon said.

This year’s class at New Mexico Tech represents 15 states and seven foreign countries. Eight students are from California, six from New Mexico and three from Florida. The foreign students are from Canada, England, Greece, India, Mexico, Thailand and Turkey.

“The program is fairly self-selective,” he said. “Not every high school kid wants to spend the summer doing astronomy. We get very focused students.”

The Summer Science Program first came to New Mexico Tech in 2003 when the program expanded from one site to two sites.
Board members toured New Mexico and received a warm welcome from Tech President Dr. Daniel H. Lopez and other top administrators.

“New Mexico Tech is an ideal location for our program and there aren’t very many,” Bowdon said. “Tech has, of course, all the scientific, computing and residential facilities that we could possibly ask for and more. Plus, here we have dark skies and a good campus observatory. We received such a warm invitation that we figured out a way to come here.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich