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Small Scopes, Big Impact

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.

The Fourth of July promises to be a memorable day for NASA scientists who have spent the past six years preparing to smash an 820-pound space probe into a comet approximately nine miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide. It will also be a milestone of sorts for individual astronomers around the world who are making important contributions to the landmark Deep Impact mission.

If all goes as planned, the early-morning collision will expose the interior of comet Tempel 1, possibly revealing materials frozen in time since the formation of the solar system. But crashing a manmade probe traveling at more than 50,000 mph into a comet streaking through space at almost 67,000 mph requires pinpoint accuracy -- the exact trajectory of the comet must be known so the probe can be maneuvered into the right place at the right time.

Tim Puckett building a telescope
The gigantic ground- and space-based telescopes -- with diameters as large as 400 inches -- through which NASA observes the comet are limited in number and availability. So in its effort to continuously monitor Tempel 1 before, during and after impact, NASA has enlisted the help of advanced amateur astronomers across the globe. As participants in the mission's Small Telescope Science Program, these volunteers have generated a steady stream of images showing the comet's location and key features of its coma and tail.

Image to right: Tim Puckett estimates he spent about 10,000 hours over eight years building a telescope from parts he found at scrap yards. Credit: NASA

"Why not engage those with small telescopes that are available on clear nights whenever an observer has time?" said Lucy McFadden, University of Maryland astronomer and member of the Deep Impact science team.

One skywatcher who jumped at the opportunity to help out was Tim Puckett, although his eagerness should come as no surprise once you know his story. Unable to afford the size or kind of telescope he desired, Puckett estimates he spent 10,000 hours, from 1988 to 1996, building a 24-inch scope from parts he found at scrap yards, using a wire brush to clean junkyard metal as good as new. He now has his own telescope company and operates an observatory in Ellijay, Ga.

What motivated Puckett to go to such great lengths?

"For me it was the wonder and mystery of the sky," said Puckett, who remembers being fascinated by the stars as early as age 5. "To be out under the stars makes one feel alive, and also very small at the same time."

Ralph Pass standing next to his telescope
Image to left: Ralph Pass prepares his telescope for a viewing of the night sky. Credit: NASA

Ralph Pass also has his own observatory -- on the deck of his Andover, Mass., home. While his early attempts at viewing Tempel 1, back in 2000 and 2001, were often thwarted by clouds, Pass did succeed in making an important contribution to another NASA mission. A few years ago, faced with a significant gap in observations, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory called on Pass to provide images of comet Borrelly in the weeks before the Deep Space 1 spacecraft was scheduled to fly in for a close-up view of the comet. Observations made by Pass from his 10-inch scope were eventually validated by those from the powerful 200-incher at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, north of San Diego.

"This gave JPL confidence in the data I supplied... and gave me a deep sense of pride," Pass said. Lately, he's had success viewing Tempel 1 as well.

Then there's Jay Reynolds, who at one point had all but given up on space science as a career. Growing up in the 1960s, he was excited by the space race and trips to the moon. "You couldn't open a box of cereal without having some sort of space toy in there," Reynolds remembers. "Space was really a part of the fabric of this country."

By the 1970s, however, Reynolds -- fearing that enthusiasm for space was waning -- had started to pursue a more down-to-earth career track. It wasn't until about 10 years ago, following 20 years in office automation (but all the while maintaining an interest in space science), that Reynolds decided to follow his true passion. Before long he was the director of an Ohio planetarium, teaching astronomy at two Ohio colleges, and a consultant to local media outlets on space science issues.

When Reynolds heard NASA was looking for astronomers to capture images for Deep Impact, he saw a golden opportunity to engage his students in real science. "Why not just involve students in the actual taking of the pictures?" he pondered.

Danitra Donatelli and Jay Reynolds shaking hands
Image to right: Danitra Donatelli and Jay Reynolds shake hands after giving a talk at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Credit: NASA

Much to the satisfaction of students like Danitra Donatelli, Reynolds formed a comet-watching group that soon began sending images to NASA. "In terms of being in a research environment, that's what I went to school for -- and I didn't expect that until I was at graduate level," said Donatelli, a first-year student at Lakeland Community College near Cleveland. "For me to be able to participate in something like this was absolutely elating."

Observations of Tempel 1 made by Donatelli, Reynolds and many other astronomers have become increasingly important as impact day has neared and the mission's science team is focused more and more on successful execution of the encounter. That means looking at computer screens more so than looking to space.

"We need to know if dust activity in the coma and tail is increasing or decreasing, causing the comet to become brighter or fainter," McFadden said. "Someone has to look up."

See previous Space Science Explorers articles:
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Related Resources
Picture an Astronomer
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Deep Impact Small Telescope Science Program
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies