Massachusetts Students Experience NASA Airborne Study
Three Massachusetts high school students began their summer with a journey halfway around the world to participate in a NASA mission that imaged a Japanese spacecraft's fiery return to Earth.
Brigitte Berman, James Breitmeyer and Yiannis Karavas were the youngest members of a science team that used NASA's highly instrumented DC-8 airborne science laboratory to image the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hayabusa spacecraft as it ended a seven-year journey to capture a sample of the asteroid Itokawa to Earth. All three students are studying space science at the Clay Center Observatory at Dexter and Southfield Schools in Brookline, Mass.
The students and their instructor, Clay Center director Ronald Dantowitz, traveled to NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., where they installed 14 cameras on the converted jetliner. The cameras were designed to capture high-speed, high-resolution images of the spacecraft returning from its odyssey. The student team then traveled commercially to Australia to await the arrival of the DC-8.
The experience was somewhat of a surprise to the students, who had been unknowingly trained for the mission by Dantowitz through an independent study course. He began working with Berman more than 18 months ago and added the boys later, tasking them with planning a mission such as this. As their teacher, he wanted to test their readiness first as he "didn't want to dangle a carrot in front of them." After gaining permission from their parents, Dantowitz asked the students to participate in the NASA mission.
Eleventh-grader Berman was thrilled with the opportunity. She has dreamed of wearing a blue NASA flight suit ever since her third-grade teacher wore one after completion of educator astronaut training. For a 16-year old, she displays a maturity that is reflected in her goal of studying astrophysics and finds the idea of traveling into outer space "fun."
Breitmeyer said the students were prepared for the mission by making and assembling paper mock-ups of the camera assembly. This led to the practical application of installing the school's cameras behind optical windows on the DC-8. Specialized cameras occupied most of the aircraft's windows, while the remaining windows were covered so that no light escaped from the aircraft interior to distort the images. Several science team members viewed the spacecraft's re-entry with the naked eye, but most saw the one-minute event through cameras or monitors.
It was cold and dark on the plane, according to Breitmeyer, and several members of the science team expressed their unease with having only one opportunity to image the spacecraft. The re-entry, however, was brighter than expected, Berman added.
Karavas was aboard the flying laboratory for an instrument checkout flight prior to the mission. During the actual Hayabusa data-collection flight, Karavas gathered scientific information from the ground as the spacecraft descended over Southern Australia's Woomera Test Range.
Berman, Breitmeyer and Dantowitz were among about 30 scientists who flew on the DC-8 as NASA carried out its goal of obtaining data about the re-entry of the 40-pound sample return capsule, hopefully carrying samples collected from Itokawa when the Hayabusa craft landed on the asteroid in 2005.
NASA's interest was in the performance of the capsule's heat shield during re-entry speeds exceeding 27,000 mph. After the capsule separated, the carrier spacecraft broke apart and burned as it descended over the Australian test range.
Dantowitz said that he could not have completed the mission without the students.
"I have been on a number of missions," he reflected. "This is the most rewarding because of this, working with these students. We are training our replacements."
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NASA Dryden Flight Research Center