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Going Pro With Spitzer
Who Are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer working on robotic machines bound for space. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the student wondering if there is life beyond Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all linked by their quest to explore our solar system and universe. This monthly series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is used by the world's top scientists to explore space. But you don't have to be a professional to access data from it.

Teacher Tim Spuck and a student look at a computer monitor as she points to the screen
Image to left: Brittany, a high school senior, and teacher Tim Spuck analyze data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: Dave Bowser

Students and teachers from all over the country are taking part in a special program. With data from Spitzer, they are studying distant stars and other objects in deep space. The program is called the Space Telescope Research Program for Teachers and Students.

Spitzer was launched in 2003. It snaps images of stars, planets and galaxies, but not in the way you might think. Most people are familiar with telescopes that observe visible light. Spitzer is different. It senses objects by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, they emit. This method allows Spitzer to see objects in space that are behind clouds of gas and dust. Such clouds tend to block the view of telescopes that only see visible light.

The students and teachers using Spitzer data are teamed with scientists from two science centers. One is the Spitzer Science Center in Pasadena, Calif. The other is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. The teams are studying everything from star formation to black holes.

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

+ The Space Place: Match the Faces

+ Previous Space Science Explorer Series Articles

Teachers taking part in the program visited the Spitzer Science Center this past summer. The center is on the campus of the California Institute of Technology. Each teacher brought up to two students with them. The students and teachers worked together in the same way scientists do. They learned how to access data from Spitzer. Then they plotted and studied the data.

Working with computers and data was a big part of the visit. But at least one student says there was an even bigger lesson to be learned about science in general.

"The most important thing I learned doesn't have anything to do with data," Brittany said. "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." Brittany is now a senior at her high school in Pennsylvania. Her team is studying young stars and how stars form in the Orion constellation.

The program also has been a learning experience for Brittany's teacher, Tim Spuck. He's had to learn new software and methods for interpreting data. He says it's good 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."

Image showing a region within the Orion constellation
Image to left: Spitzer data was used to create this image. The image shows a region of star formation in the Orion constellation. Credit: Brittany, a high school senior, and educator Tim Spuck

Scientists, too, understand what it is to be lifelong learners. Spitzer is seeing things that are somewhat new, even to longtime astronomers. Brown dwarfs are a perfect example. The first confirmed sighting of one 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 their mass is too small to cause them to shine like stars On the other hand, their mass is too large to call them planets. They also are too dim to be seen by visible-light telescopes. This is where infrared comes to the rescue.

Using data from Spitzer, Kimmerlee has been able to study objects that could be brown dwarfs. In particular, she wants to know what type of energy these objects absorb and emit. This information helps to reveal an object's temperature and composition. It can also show 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.

Kimmerlee is a sophomore in high school. She's enjoyed the chance to work with Spitzer data and images. It has showed her the importance of infrared technology. And it has confirmed her long-held interest in astronomy and space science.

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

"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 teacher, Beth Thomas, has seen that passion grow during the project. She says that Kimmerlee and another of her students who participated are looking ahead to a bright future. She says they are on track to be successful in school and in their careers.

Spuck sees similar results in his students. He says that they have learned what it is really like to be a scientist. They now understand that science doesn't always produce definite answers.

"This real-life experience makes science come alive," Spuck said. "Science comes to be seen as various shades of gray ... rather than black and white."

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies