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Small Scopes, Big Impact
Who Are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in space. The teacher talking about the secrets of the cosmos. And the student asking if there is life away from Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all curious about our solar system and space. This is a story about a NASA Space Science Explorer.

This Fourth of July there will be fireworks on Earth and in space. NASA plans to crash a space probe into a comet. The crash is supposed to take a small chunk out of the comet. Scientists want to see what's inside. They hope to find materials from when the solar system first formed.

Tim Puckett building a telescope
Image above: It took Tim Puckett about 10,000 hours to build his own telescope. Credit: NASA
People at NASA have been looking forward to the big day. But they are not the only ones. Astronomers all over the world are also excited. Many have had a key part in this project called Deep Impact.

Crashing a comet is tricky. Both the probe and comet are zooming quickly through space. The exact path of the comet must be known. That way, the probe can be steered to the right place at the right time.

NASA uses huge telescopes to keep track of the comet. Problem is, there aren't that many of them. And often they are being used for other projects. So NASA needed some help. It asked astronomers to watch the comet as well. These are people who look up at the sky through small telescopes. They were asked to send pictures of the comet to NASA.

One person who jumped at the chance to help was Tim Puckett. Tim has always loved looking at the sky. One time he didn't have enough money to buy a telescope. So he built his own. He did it with parts he found at the junkyard. It took about 10,000 hours over eight years! But it was worth it. Now he owns a company that makes telescopes.
Ralph Pass standing next to his telescope
Image above: Ralph Pass gets ready to view the night sky through his telescope. Credit: NASA

What made Tim to go to such great lengths? "For me it was the wonder and mystery of the sky," he said. "To be out under the stars makes one feel alive."

Ralph Pass also agreed to help NASA. At first he had trouble seeing the comet. There always seemed to be clouds in the way. But he was able to help with another project. NASA needed help watching a second comet. Ralph was able to see it through his telescope. So he sent NASA pictures of what he saw. He was glad he could help out. This "gave me a deep sense of pride," he said.

What about the first comet? Ralph kept trying and has now seen it several times.

Then there's Jay Reynolds. He grew up in the 1960s. Space was all the rage back then. "You couldn't open a box of cereal without having some sort of space toy in there," he said.
Danitra Donatelli and Jay Reynolds shaking hands
Image above: Danitra Donatelli and Jay Reynolds are helping NASA with its Deep Impact project. Credit: NASA

Jay is now a college science teacher. He was thrilled when he heard NASA needed help watching the sky. It was a perfect way for his students to take part in real science. He quickly got a group together to watch the comet. And they soon began to send their pictures to NASA.

These pictures are even more important as of late. That's what Lucy McFadden says. She's part of the science team working on Deep Impact. She says her team has more and more to do as the big day gets close. That means they have less time to watch the comet. Luckily, they have some help.

"Someone has to look up," she said.

See previous Space Science Explorers articles:
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Comet Word Find
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Telescope Crossword Puzzle
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies