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Students Make Observations of Comet Hyakutake


National Radio Astronomy Observatory
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Middle-School Students to Make Optical Observations
During VLA Radar Study of Comet Hyakutake

On a high plain in the New Mexico desert, 27 large, 230-ton dish antennas of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the National Science Foundation's premier astronomical facilties, will aim toward Comet Hyakutake this evening (Tuesday, March 26). At the same time, students at a San Diego middle school, sitting in their classroom, will take computer control of an optical telescope on Mount Wilson, in California, to make complementary observations of the comet.

The NSF's VLA will collect the faint reflection of radio waves sent from a powerful transmitter at Goldstone, California, bounced off the comet and returned to Earth. Scientists hope the radio reflections will tell them about a possible halo of centimeter-sized particles surrounding the solid nucleus of the comet. At National City Middle School in San Diego, 6th, 7th and 8th-grade students also will be looking at the region of the comet's nucleus, using a 24-inch optical telescope that is part of the Telescopes in Education project of the Mount Wilson Institute and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

"We welcome the students to the observing program," said Patrick Palmer, one of the scientists conducting the VLA-Goldstone radar observation. "It's nice to have good observations made at the same time but with visible light rather than radio waves. In addition, the students' optical data could be quite valuable if we should run into any big surprises with the radio observations."

Palmer, of the University of Chicago, is part of an observing team led by Imke de Pater of the University of California at Berkeley, and which includes Steven Ostro, David Mitchell and Donald Yeomans of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lewis Snyder of the University of Illinois, and Scott Hudson of Washington State University.

"We're very happy to involve young people in the research on this exciting comet and hope this experience encourages the students to expand their involvement in science," said Dave Finley, spokesman for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

In San Diego, the students are part of an interdisciplinary and multi-cultural science program led by National City Middle School teacher Karen Prosser. The Telescopes in Education (TIE) program, led by Gilbert Clark of the Jet Propulsion Lab, has provided support for the astronomy component of the school's science program. Steve Golden, also of the TIE program, has been assisting the students with image processing at their school, and TIE's Joel Pedrosa will oversee the telescope's operation on Mount Wilson.

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