Moon Mission Provides Students with Unique Opportunity
Students watch the launch of LRO and LCROSS from the GAVRT control room.Students watch the launch of LRO and LCROSS from the GAVRT control room. Credit: Lewis Center for Educational Research/Greg Waskul.
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When NASA's Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on June 18, 2009, students in the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) program were ready.

The GAVRT program students have a unique resource: a massive 34-meter radio telescope used for exploration of the universe; and the students are using it to actively participate in the LCROSS mission.

On day two of the mission, students manning the GAVRT control room in Apple Valley, Calif., successfully acquired, tracked and measured the radial delta-V, or change in speed, of LCROSS during the mission’s critical first trajectory correction maneuver. The students were able to measure the changing Doppler shift in the spacecraft’s carrier signal and were able to estimate a radial delta-V of approximately 49 feet per second (15 m/s).

Screen shot of a GAVRT computer showing the acquired signal from the LCROSS spacecraft.Screen shot of a GAVRT computer showing the acquired signal from the LCROSS spacecraft during Trajectory Correction Maneuver 1 on the second day of the mission. Credit: Lewis Center for Educational Research.
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"Tracking of the spacecraft by the GAVRT students is not a mission requirement, but it is an excellent win-win for both parties," said Dan Andrews, LCROSS project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

As part of their collaboration with the LCROSS mission and the GAVRT program, students will track and will listen for the spacecraft during scheduled communications outages. During the cruise phase of the mission, LCROSS mission operations has a narrow communications opportunity of about three hours every three days to assess spacecraft systems and upload any new commands. If the students hear a signal when the transmitter is scheduled to be off, it could indicate a problem with the spacecraft. Under established procedures, the GAVRT students would verify the signal and inform LCROSS mission control of a potential problem.

It is participatory exploration at its finest.

"The GAVRT program gives anyone the chance to be a hero," said Alicia Scarberry, a GAVRT intern and recent graduate of Lewis Center’s charter school in Apple Valley, Calif. "You! Yep, you can be involved! You can help NASA’s return to the moon."

Through remote Internet access, more than 32,000 American students in 37 states, three United States territories and 14 countries, have participated in campaigns to learn more about Jupiter, Uranus, quasars and active galactic nuclei. These students will rotate tracking LCROSS as the spacecraft makes its nearly 5,592,000-mile (9,000,000 km) journey to the moon.

"Something very special clearly happens when you directly involve students in a mission," said Brian Day, education and public outreach lead for LCROSS. "For these students, this is not just NASA flying another rocket, it becomes their mission. They have a direct personal stake in it."

On Oct. 9, 2009, the GAVRT control room will be full of students and faculty and buzzing with activity. With students at the controls, the GAVRT telescope will track the LCROSS Centaur and shepherding spacecraft as they impact the surface of the moon.

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope program connects K-12 student teams with the scientific community to facilitate student discovery. The program is a partnership between NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and the Lewis Center for Educational Research. Since August 1997, 458 teachers across the globe have been trained in curriculum and operations for participation in the GAVRT program.

Jonas Dino
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.