Sean Coughlan on a project where some of the world's most powerful telescopes can be trained on the stars by children in class. A powerful telescope in southern California is being operated by children sitting in their own classrooms, with views of distant planets and passing comets being projected on to their computer screens.
The Telescopes in Education project allows schools to "dial a galaxy", using only a personal computer and modem to connect to the Mount Wilson Observatory, in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles.
So far, 85 schools in the United States, Britain and Canada have linked to the project, allowing them to direct the telescope into the night sky and record their findings - classroom research which has already included the discovery of a previously unidentified star.
Acknowledging such pioneering work, this on-screen planetarium has recently been awarded a prestigious science prize, the Rolex Award, worth Pounds 32,500, which will help the project to expand to take in five more telescopes - another on Mount Wilson and four in Australia.
The project's manager, Gilbert Clark, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that there are further plans to set up a chain of school observatories worldwide, with telescopes to be sited in South Africa, the Ukraine and South Korea.
Although using high-grade equipment and software at Mount Wilson (the telescope was used in the United States' space programme), the project has made a virtue of keeping things simple and cheap for the classroom users.
Funded by NASA, the telescope can be booked for $50 an hour (with a one-off cost of $200 for the remote control software), with the school then having free rein to point and click through the "lens" of its own computer, searching for traces of asteroids or comets. Images can be printed out or stored on to hard disc, where they can be analysed later, or noted for further exploration.
The biggest motivation for students and their teachers, says Gilbert Clark, is that this is "real science - using real tools, gathering information that feeds into astronomical knowledge." As an example, schools taking part in the project participated alongside professional observatories in monitoring the comet Hyakutake in April. And through its links with NASA, the project has linked schools to images being sent back by space exploration programmes, such as the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. "Never before have large, professional telescopes been available for hands-on, real-time, remote operation by students in a classroom," he says.
Richard Field, a physics teacher at Oundle School in Cambridgeshire, one of the British schools that has participated in the project, says that Telescopes in Education has proved a success. A powerful telescope can capture a student's imagination, he says, with striking images of nebula or the rings around planets. As well as bringing science directly to students, he believes there is also much to be gained by teachers.
Richard Yessayian, a science teacher at a Californian high school that uses the Mount Wilson telescope, says that the project has helped to encourage an interest in science that is much more involving than text-book experiments in which students are "just following a cook book. This opens so many doors: developing computer skills alongside learning about the basic structure of the universe, teaching children about handling data and images. In teaching science, this is the finest thing I've seen."
While the fee for using the computer might be modest, for British schools the biggest financial obstacle would be the cost of the daytime phone connection - effectively the same as being on the phone to the United States for an hour at peak-time. To make the project more affordable to a wider audience, Gilbert Clark intends to transfer the connection process to the Internet, so that calls would be at local rates, wherever they were coming from in the world. This would allow British schools to participate on a regular basis, instead of in an expensive one-off arrangement.
Another aim of developing access via the Internet is that schools other than those actually navigating the telescope could eavesdrop on what was being explored, with this spectator audience also able to download images from the screen.
For further information contact Gilbert Clark, Telescopes in Education, Mount Wilson Institute, PO Box 24, Mount Wilson CA 91023, USA. E-mail tie@mtwilson. edu