Students tweet telescope takeover

School kids use Twitter to make observations from CSIRO’s Parkes telescope

The Parkes Radio telescope. Image credit – David McClenaghan, CSIRO.

The Parkes Radio telescope. Image credit – David McClenaghan, CSIRO.

Students from three Melbourne high schools have taken control of the CSIRO’s famous Parkes telescope in NSW using the Internet, and posted their results on Twitter.

It's a dream-come-true for the students from Footscray City Secondary College, Braemar College and Strathmore Secondary College, who are driving the telescope from the Victorian Space Science Education (VSSEC) in Melbourne and using it to make real observations of small spinning stars called pulsars.

And it's the first time Twitter has been used to report the findings, which can be followed on the social networking site at @pusleatparks. The project has already attracted international interest with NASA scientists signing up to watch their efforts. Scientists who use NASA’s Fermi space telescope to study pulsars work collaboratively with researchers using the Parkes telescope.

The session is part of an ongoing program, called PULSE@Parkes, that is giving students around the country the chance to undertake science with a large, professional, radio telescope.

The CSIRO plans to build on the experience to develop remote-observing education programs for the Australian Square Kilometre Pathfinder (ASKAP) which it is now developing for operation in Western Australia.

ASKAP, as well as being a world-leading telescope in its own right, will be an important test-bed for the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international radio telescope that will be the world’s largest and most powerful.

CSIRO SKA Director, Professor Brian Boyle, said the education program will be extended to ASKAP and later to the SKA.

“We are putting frontline astronomical research straight into the hands of the young people who are going to be the ones using the SKA,” Professor Boyle said.

ATNF Education Officer and PULSE@Parkes coordinator, Mr Rob Hollow, said there are plans to start getting pulsar data from a second, smaller dish at Parkes that had been built to test equipment for ASKAP.

“From there we’ll be looking to make other kinds of observations, such as studying the hydrogen gas in space that is the raw material for forming stars,” Mr Hollow said.

PULSE@Parkes began in late 2007 and more than 20 sessions have now been run. More than 250 students have had the chance to observe directly with the Parkes telescope as a result of the program. Students receive an introduction to radio astronomy, pulsars, and the nuts and bolts of observing and get to talk to an astronomer present at Parkes via videolink and take full control of the telescope during the session. The observations gather data, which is later analysed to determine findings such as the distance of the pulsars observed.

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