British and Irish schools use National Schools Observatory for pre-college science education

The Liverpool Telescope sits atop an extinct volcano in the Canary Islands as part of the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos complex. Students across the UK and Ireland use its 2-meter mirror to enhance their science education. Source: Liverpool John Moores University

The Liverpool Telescope sits atop an extinct volcano in the Canary Islands as part of the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos complex. Students across the UK and Ireland use its 2-meter mirror to enhance their science education. Source: Liverpool John Moores University

The National Schools Observatory is another example of the way professional astronomers enhance secondary school science education by letting teachers and students use professional observatories. British and Irish students taking part in the NSO get access to the Liverpool Telescope, a professional observatory that studies supernovae, gamma ray bursts, and other short-term changes in the Universe.

 

Billions and Billions

Thanks to Carl Sagan (and Johnny Carson) that’s what often comes to mind when we think about our changing Universe. Stars are born, change, and die over the course of millions or billions of years. Galaxies take billions of years to collide and merge.

But change often happens on more human timescales. Stars expand and contract. Transiting exoplanets briefly dim their stars’ light. Supernova explosions and gamma ray bursts explode into existence and fade away. 

Professional sky surveys like the Catalina Real Time Survey use telescopes to scan the night sky for these transient events. But these survey telescopes keep on scanning. They don’t stop to study the transients they find. Big professional observatories like the Very Large Telescope are booked solid months in advance. They can’t handle the weeks of short follow-up observations transient research requires.

Astronomers at Liverpool John Moores University decided they needed their own telescope dedicated to transient research. Since the skies over Liverpool are more suited for studying clouds than observing stars, the 2-meter Liverpool Telescope sits atop an extinct volcano in La Palma, one of the Canary Islands. Each night the robotic telescope automatically observes object after object for scientists studying how stars or galaxies change over weeks, months, or years. When a new event occurs the Liverpool Telescope drops everything to collect data. On October 10, 2014, for example the project’s scientists used the Liverpool Telescope’s spectrograph to study a dwarf nova spotted by the Gaia Space Telescope:

When the Gaia Space Telescope spotted a sudden brightening in space, scientists with the Liverpool Telescope obtained this spectrum (horizontal line) of the binary system that produced it. One of the stars is a white dwarf that rips material from its companion star. When it reaches critical mass the accreted material fuses and explodes from the white dwarf. Source: Liverpool Telescope

When the Gaia Space Telescope spotted a sudden brightening in space, scientists with the Liverpool Telescope obtained this spectrum (horizontal line) of the binary system that produced it. One of the stars is a white dwarf that rips material from its companion star. When it reaches critical mass the accreted material fuses and explodes from the white dwarf. Source: Liverpool Telescope

Its the Kids' Turn

But the Liverpool Telescope has another mission: enhancing science education in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The project’s scientists have set aside 10% of the telescope’s observing time - over 10,000 observations a year - just for teachers and students.

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Registered schools get access to the National Schools’ Observatory’s Go Observing system. This online tool - like the Bradford Robotic Telescope - takes observing requests, automatically schedules the observations, and distributes the data. Its designed to be easy for those with little astronomy experience and yet still provide scientifically useful data for student research projects.

Just like other educational observatories, the NSO developed custom software, called LTImage so teams of students could analyze the data the telescope produces. Among the things teams can do with LTImage:

  • Scale images to bring out faint details in nebulae and galaxies
  • Combine filtered images to create pretty color images
  • Measure craters on the Moon and spots on the Sun
  • Blink multiple images to spot asteroids and comets moving across starfields
  • Measure brightness in multiple images to study variable stars

Dr. Andy Newsam published an article in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics (free access DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4004.2007.48422.x) describing how these NSO projects expose students to astronomy’s collaborative nature -  something Newsam says is “very difficult to get across in school, where the erroneous image of a lone boffin in an observatory often holds sway”

Why Stop There?

The 50,000th observation at the National Schools Observatory was this image of the spiral galaxy NGC1637. Credit: Ben from Brooksbank School

The 50,000th observation at the National Schools Observatory was this image of the spiral galaxy NGC1637. Credit: Ben from Brooksbank School

Ben, a student at Brooksbank School, submitted the National Schools Observatory's 50,000th observation request - an image of the galaxy NGC1637 - as 2013 came to a close. It took 4 years to reach its first 10,000 observations but 4 years later students had generated 4 times as much data. The NSO's announcement spoke with Ben's teacher - Mr. Smith - about the program's impact:

We have been using NSO for three years as the core of our astronomy club.... The NSO has been the catalyst for starting GCSE Astronomy as an extra-curricular activity this year. Our astronomy club would not function without it - we all think it is fab!
— http://www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk/news/2013/celebrate50k

At 2,000 schools and growing, the impact of the NSO's educational program will only get bigger. The Liverpool John Moores University is already planning its next-generation telescope. The Liverpool Telescope 2 will be a 4-meter telescope that will conduct follow-on observations of supernovae, gamma ray bursts, and other transient events. In an arXiv preprint of an upcoming paper, the project scientists explained that the NSO is still deciding how best to integrate it into their education plans: 

At the very least, a percentage of LT2 time will be available for schools observing. However, if the LT remains in operation then there is scope for a significant expansion of the time allocated to the NSO, since many existing science programmes will shift to the new telescope. This would potentially allow for expansion of the educational programme to schools across the European Union and beyond.
— http://arxiv.org/abs/1410.1731

A decade ago, the National Schools Observatory earned a Queens Anniversary Prize for Further and Higher Education. LJMU Vice-Chancellor said at the time, "What’s even more ground-breaking is that our scientists have been able to harness this cutting edge technology to enthuse future generations of scientists." That ground-breaking tradition will accelerate as the professionals move on to the Liverpool Telescope 2: students around the world will produce 50,000 observations every year with a professional-grade 2-meter telescope.