Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope program lets students across America study radio emissions from the giant planets and the black holes in distant galaxies using one of Nasa’s giant radio dish antennas. More than 32,000 primary and secondary school students have conducted real scientific research since the program began twenty years ago. Their work supports professional research and helps the Juno and Spitzer space missions.

Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built Deep Space Station 12 in 1962 as part of its Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave Desert. It supported the Echo Project, bouncing radio signals off giant orbiting balloons to demonstrate satellite communications. As part of the Deep Space Network, DSS-12 connected Nasa’s mission teams with spacecraft throughout the Solar System. The radio dish neared the end of its service life after thirty years of operation. Rather than sell it for scrap, JPL turned it into a radio telescope and donated it to the Lewis Center for Education Research.

The Lewis Center made DSS-12 the centerpiece of its Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope science education program. Staff from the Lewis Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory conduct workshops every summer at the JPL campus in Pasadena, California. Teachers spend three days learning how to control the telescope, collect data, and conduct research within the context of national science standards. The teachers design research projects that their students conduct during the school year. Students use software to control the telescope via the Internet and conduct video conferences with Nasa scientists and engineers. Even though they collect data for their own class research projects, that data goes into Nasa’s archives where they can help future professional research. The Lewis Center has relationships with many professional scientists which lets students participate in observational campaigns to support professional research:

  • Giant Planet Research - Campaigns study radio-frequency emissions from the outer planets. Students can contribute to Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter and help collect data on Uranus, which hasn’t had a visitor from Earth since the Voyager flyby.
  • Black Hole Research - Quasars and the galactic cores are supermassive black holes that blast enormous amounts of energy into space as they consume stars and planets. Students’ data go into an archive that lets scientists study how these black holes behave over time.

Not only do the students get hands-on experience with research, but they also get to see their work contribute to professional science when research based on their data is published in professional scientific journals. Over 2,000 students took part in the Cassini-Huygens mission in 2000 and 2001 when the spacecraft flew by Jupiter. The students’ measurements of Jupiter’s radio emissions helped scientists calibrate the space probe’s radar system which would later map the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. JPL scientists presented the results at the General Assembly of the International Union of Radio Science and published their results in the journal Nature, generating over 60 citations. An article based on student observations of Uranus published in the journal Icarus generated 20 citations. You can take read the papers for yourself:

  • Klein, Michael J., et al. "DSN and GAVRT observations of Jupiter at 13 GHz and the calibration of the Cassini radar instrument for passive radiometry." (2002).
  • Bolton, S. J., et al. "Ultra-relativistic electrons in Jupiter's radiation belts." Nature 415.6875 (2002): 987-991.
  • Klein, M. J., and M. D. Hofstadter. "Long-term variations in the microwave brightness temperature of the Uranus atmosphere." Icarus 184.1 (2006): 170-180.

The Lewis Center’s work to bring radio astronomy to thousands of students has been so successful that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory donated a second radio telescope, Deep Space Station 28, to the program. The new addition to the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope project has a special wide band radio receiver that covers more of the radio spectrum than DSS-12’s S-band and X-band receivers. Students will soon use the telescope to conduct radio spectroscopy research, study pulsars, and explore other deep space radio sources.