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Going Pro With Spitzer

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer designing robotic instruments for probing hard-to-reach planets. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the elementary schooler wondering if life exists anywhere besides Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers -- they are all connected by their quest to explore and understand our solar system and universe. This series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Teacher Tim Spuck and a student look at a computer monitor as she points to the screen
Professional scientists are not the only ones using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to learn about brown dwarfs, iron stars and other deep-space objects. In a special program, teachers and students from all over the country are producing their own advanced research based on Spitzer data.

Image to left: Brittany, a high school senior, and teacher Tim Spuck analyze data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: Dave Bowser

Launched in 2003 and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Spitzer captures images of stars, planets and galaxies by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, they emit. One advantage of infrared telescopes is that they can observe objects behind clouds of gas and dust. These clouds tend to block the view of traditional telescopes that see only visible light.

Participants in the Spitzer Space Telescope Research Program for Teachers and Students are teamed with scientists from the Spitzer Science Center in Pasadena, Calif., and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. Together, they are investigating everything from star formation to characteristics of black holes.

Teachers were selected for the program from those taking part in the NOAO's Teacher Leaders in Research Based Science Education. This astronomy-focused professional development program for science teachers is funded by the National Science Foundation. A dozen teachers formed the initial participating group, before a second set of six new teachers was picked to start this year.

Each of the program's 12 original teachers brought up to two students with them on a visit this past summer to the Spitzer Science Center, located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology. Together, the teachers and students converted raw data collected by the telescope into a format suitable for analysis.

Image showing a region within the Orion constellation
Image to right: Infrared observations from Spitzer were used to create this image of a star-forming region in the Orion constellation. Credit: Brittany, a high school senior, and educator Tim Spuck

While working with computers and data was a key part of the trip for Brittany, now a senior in Pennsylvania, she says there was an even larger lesson to be learned about science in general.

"The most important thing I learned doesn't have anything to do with data," said Brittany, who is part of a team studying young stars and star formation in a region of the Orion constellation. "It's that science isn't something that can be taught from a book [alone] -- it's something that you learn only by doing it yourself."

The program has also been a learning experience for Brittany's teacher, Tim Spuck. In the course of the project, he has become familiar with new software and methods for interpreting data. He says it's a good thing for students to see that education is an ongoing process that is not just for kids.

"I think it's important for students to see their teachers struggle though the process of learning something new," Spuck said. "When students see teachers in these experiences, they come to understand what lifelong learning is all about."

Scientists, too, understand what it is to be lifelong learners. Some of the phenomena observed by Spitzer are relatively new, even to professional astronomers. The first confirmed sighting of a brown dwarf, for example, occurred only a decade ago.

Brown dwarfs are mysterious objects that form out of clouds of gas and dust. They are similar to stars, but they lack the mass needed for a star to shine. On the other hand, their mass is too large to qualify as planets. The dwarfs are also too dim to be detected by visible-light telescopes.

A student compares the graphic on a piece of paper to what is on her computer monitor
Image to left: Kimmerlee, a high school sophomore, examines data at the Spitzer Science Center in Pasadena, Calif. Credit: Beth Thomas

Using infrared data from Spitzer, however, high school sophomore Kimmerlee, from Montana, has been able to study the spectral distribution -- the wavelengths at which energy is absorbed and emitted -- of objects in space that could be brown dwarfs. This information helps to reveal an object's temperature, composition and whether it is indeed a brown dwarf. Scientists are interested in finding out just how many brown dwarfs there are. They wonder if brown dwarfs may contain a portion of the universe’s mass that, thus far, has not been found.

For Kimmerlee, working with Spitzer data and images has not only afforded her hands-on experience with infrared technology, but has also confirmed her long-held interest in astronomy and space science.

"I've always been interested in science and mathematics, primarily astronomy," Kimmerlee said. "I can remember looking up at the sky at night when I was very young and knew right from the start that that is where my passion lies."

Kimmerlee's science teacher, Beth Thomas, has seen the project's impact on the academic and career tracks of both Kimmerlee and another of her students who made the trip to Pasadena.

Related Resources
+ Spitzer Space Telescope Research Program for Teachers and Students

+ Seeing Our World in a Different Light Poster (PDF)
+ Download viewer

+ Previous Space Science Explorer Series Articles

"The experience as a whole has clarified their focus. It's confirmed their career choices and inspired them to take additional and advanced courses," said Thomas.

As part of the overall program, the teachers have presented their work at conferences and workshops for educators and scientists. They are also in the midst of preparing poster presentations and journal articles. Many are incorporating Spitzer data and images into their classroom activities, and are conducting workshops that show other teachers how to do the same.

Spuck says the opportunity for students and teachers to partner with scientists, and to work closely with real data and advanced technology, is a unique supplement to traditional classroom learning. The process provides a window into what it is really like to be a scientist, and how science doesn't always yield clear-cut answers.

"This real-life experience makes science come alive in ways that traditional science teaching methods cannot," Spuck said. "Science comes to be seen as various shades of gray, based on the available evidence, rather than black and white."

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies