L-W North Students, Teacher Present Results From NASA Research

Students spent several months tracking an asteroid to determine its rotational period.

A group of students and their teacher are back from Austin, Texas where they presented the results of their NASA research project to students, educators and professional astronomers from all over the world.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Lincoln-Way North senior Joseph Wiggs, who joined classmates Ryan DePorto and Scott Stolarz, as well as Lincoln-Way North science teacher Peggy Piper, on trip to Austin on Jan. 9 where they presented their findings at the American Astronomical Society conference. 

“This was a one-of-a-kind experience that will help us have more confidence in our college careers,” added Scott.

Students spent a day explaining to astronomers and space scientists from all over the world how they and classmate Bill Shake (who was unable to make the trip to Austin) tracked an asteroid for several months and determined how long it takes the celestial body to make one rotation.

The research is important, said Ryan, because it can help determine what an asteroid is made of and how it can be destroyed if it becomes a threat to Earth.

In the case of Asteroid 2000 S01–the asteroid Lincoln-Way North students tracked for several months–it was determined that it takes 6.704 hours for the asteroid to make one complete rotation.

They shared their findings with scientists and educators at the American Astronomical Society conference, which students described as a large science fair with displays on radio telescopes and inflatable planetariums.

“We were the youngest ones there,” chuckled Ryan as he recalled how people wanted to know if they were graduate or undergraduate students.

The Lincoln-Way North High School seniors may have been among the youngest presenters at the conference, but they were polished in their presentation and exuded confidence as they fielded questions from astrophysicists and educators.

“They were fantastic,” said Piper, who stood by proudly as the students answered questions about their data.  “They fielded questions from some of the top astronomers from around the world with intelligence and poise beyond a high school student.  When asked about their future plans, I heard each student describe their college hopes, and their plans seemed bigger and more full of promise than I had heard in the past.”

She began working with the students two years ago during their advisory periods. They became so engrossed in their work that they would often stay after school to collect and interpret data they received over the internet with the help of Robert Holmes from the Astronomical Research Institute near Charleston.

Holmes, who takes images for NASA and became acquainted with Piper through her work with the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, would watch over the telescope that students were controlling via the internet as they took images of  Asteroid 2000 SO1. The students would then download their images and document fluctuations in light reflection to determine the asteroid’s rotational period.

Holmes and Tyler Linden, an Eastern Illinois University astronomy student, spent time with the students teaching them how to obtain and process the images. They were so impressed with their work that they encouraged the students to present in Austin.

While Holmes was instrumental in supporting the work done, it was scientist Max Mutchler (the first astronomer to identify Pluto's second and third satellites using the Hubble Space Telescope), who gave students their plug for drawing spectators to their display.

The students, who all enjoy music and traveled to Austin with a mandolin, ukulele, backpacking guitar and bongo, were talked into retrieving the musical instruments from their hotel rooms and using them to draw people to their booth.

“Does the music have any relevance to your research,” several scientists asked them.

“It got you here,” Joseph would tell them.

This was the second year Piper has taken students to the American Astronomical Society conference. Last year, she took a group of students to the conference to explain their research on variable stars.

“Each year we do this work, the scope of the work and the number of students it touches gets bigger as not only the attending students, but other students here and at other schools hear of their work,” said Piper. “This work was done independently of any outside group, BUT with the support of many outside groups. They developed critical thinking, teamwork, and networking skills that will follow them throughout their lives. As the leader that they are, they have already approached me about bringing younger students on board for additional research opportunities.  They are passing it on!”

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