Student Teams Win Space Grant Competition
Student teams from Maryland, California and Montana universities won top prizes at the second annual National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition, or NSSSC, held May 16-18 at Montana State University, or MSU, in Bozeman. The competition is part of an education/outreach effort for NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, heliophysics mission, and is managed by the Montana Space Grant Consortium.
The NSSSC challenged students to design, build and test optical instruments to answer questions about the sun or other science topics that used sunlight as part of the investigation. The students also made three presentations during the competition, explaining how they designed and built their spectrographs, detailing a science outreach event they held and presenting the scientific results of their investigation.
Teams were judged in four categories: best science, best build, best design and best presentation. Each member of the winning teams won a $3,000 scholarship and the opportunity to watch the IRIS satellite launch from Vandenberg Air Force base in California, scheduled for December 2012.
"NASA is in a unique position to use scientific space missions like IRIS to foster student interest in science and engineering," said Diane DeTroye, of NASA's education office in Washington, D.C. "Giving students a chance to get hands-on experience often encourages them to pursue and continue STEM studies. This helps build an important pipeline of talent for future NASA missions."
After interfacing their spectrographs to telescope mounts already in place, the students collected sunlight to answer a variety of scientific questions.
"I think they are all winners for having done this competition, for participating and for coming to Bozeman," said contest director Randy Larimer, deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, which organized three competitions as a way to carry out education and public outreach for the IRIS mission.
This was the second competition. The first -- a pilot competition -- was held at MSU in 2011. A third competition will be held May 15-18, 2013, again at MSU. Students will design and build a spectrograph and carry out a ground-based spectroscopy experiment of their choosing. Each team will have the 2012-13 academic year to declare a science goal, design and build their instrument, collect and analyze data, and perform some type of education/outreach activity. Teams will travel to Montana in May 2013 to demonstrate their instrument and their findings in a competition-style format.
The IRIS spacecraft consists of a telescope and spectrograph working together to help scientists determine how energy is transferred through the sun's atmosphere. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics built the telescope. MSU supplied the spectrograph optics and participated in its design. Lockheed Martin of Palo Alto, Calif., leads the spectrograph team.
Once launched, IRIS will fly in a sun-synchronous polar orbit for continuous solar observations on a two-year mission. It will obtain ultraviolet spectra and images with high resolution, focused on the lowest area of the sun's atmosphere, two layers known as the chromosphere and the transition region.
IRIS is a NASA Small Explorer Mission, designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space for heliophysics and astrophysics missions using small to mid-sized spacecraft.
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Ann Marie Trotta/NASA Education Public Affairs