Educators & Students Do NASA Research


By Robert Marshall, Educator, Carnegie Science Center

Have you ever played with a thermal imaging camera? If you are unfamiliar with the term, you might remember walking up to a monitor that displayed colors depicting your body heat. Cooler temperatures, like the background, showed up as blue whereas warmer temperatures, like your skin, appeared red. Would it surprise you to learn that astronomers look for young stars using this same principle?

This past January, as a museum educator, I had the distinct pleasure of being accepted to participate in a unique one-year education outreach program. The NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP) organizes classroom teachers and informal educators into small groups that are then paired with a real astronomer. The experience is designed to give educators and their selected students a reality tour of the scientific process. Each team must first familiarize themselves with their scientist’s background.

My team, working with Dr. Luisa Rebull from the Infrared Processing Analysis Center (IPAC), is searching for young stellar objects (YSOs) in a region of the sky about the size of the full moon near the plain of the Milky Way. But, unlike ordinary stars, you cannot walk outside at night and simply look up to spot an YSO. Without producing light from the fusion process like more mature stars, YSOs are thermally warm like a piece of hot iron and therefore glow in the infrared. Furthermore, most are hidden inside their cosmic nurseries of gas and dust as they continue to collapse like a disk to eventually form new solar systems. How do we find these hidden heat sources? Astronomers use infrared instruments on board space-based telescopes that can peer through the opaque material where these young stars are beginning to take shape. Then, they look for their specific infrared fingerprints — similar to a thermal camera.

After one year of research, each NITARP team submits their findings in the form of an authentic scientific poster at the American Astronomical Society meeting the following January. Of course, the scientists mentor their teachers and students each step of the way. The goal of NITARP is not just to advance a respective field of astronomy, like searching for YSOs, but to encourage classroom teachers to involve their students in original research. It is the ultimate journey of scientific discovery.

Classroom Discussion

  • When is the 2014 application deadline this year? Can you motivate your teacher to apply for NITARP so you can participate?
  • Name at least three telescopes that have infrared capability.