Science from the sky


A Hawaii Island educator is set to hitch a ride aboard the world’s largest flying telescope.

Randi Brennon, a teacher at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, will participate in a weeklong program that will allow her to observe research aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which is essentially a modified Boeing 747 jet carrying a 17-ton, 2.7-meter telescope.

“I’ll be working right there with the scientists, seeing what they see in real time,” Brennon said. “This really opens the doors for kids to consider a career in one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. It’s showing them there’s different paths to being a scientist than just math.”

Brennon teaches as part of HAAS’ Hui Malama na Mea a Kane, a project-based learning program for seventh- and eighth-graders.

Known as the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program, the opportunity for educators to ride along on research flights is about providing teachers with a look at how research is done in a real-world setting, then giving them the tools to bring that information and experience home to their students, said Dana Backman, director of SOFIA’s education and public outreach efforts.

“It’s showing them how research happens,” he said. “Our teachers are not proposing science. They’re junior partners with the astronomers, and we ask them to come up with a plan for bringing the experience back to their local communities.”

By bringing the telescope higher into the atmosphere, the device is able to capture clearer images of celestial bodies without interference from sources such as cloud cover and pollution. Flying at 540 mph at about 44,000 feet, SOFIA is able to capture about 80 percent of the infrared radiation the Hubble Space Telescope captures, at a much lower cost, Backman said.

“It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s quite a bit less expensive (than a space telescope),” he said. The telescope is “slightly bigger (than Hubble). And it has much better acuity than Mauna Kea. It’s like a low-flying space telescope that comes home every morning, so you can make repairs, make changes. We have seven different instruments we can outfit it with, so we’ve got seven different ways we can slice and dice what we bring home.”

The goal is to analyze infrared light from the outer reaches of space to study the early formation of stars and planets, Backman said. Meanwhile, a total of 26 educators this year will get a front-row seat to watch as data is collected and analyzed. The process itself isn’t all that exciting on the surface, Backman admitted, but for those familiar with the work being done, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s not especially exciting to look at. It looks like eight or 10 people staring at computer consoles,” he said of the majority of the flights. “The excitement is more spiritual, it’s in people’s heads.”

Prior to the flights, Brennon was required to participate in a graduate-level online astronomy course, to become familiar with the terminology used by astronomers. She must also follow up with a plan she submitted with her project partner, Custer City, Pa., teacher James Johnson of the Children’s Center for Treatment and Education. The pair partnered up because of their mutual interest in astrobiology — the study of how life originated in the universe.

“The great thing is that SOFIA is concerned with looking at star nurseries, and that’s essential to looking at how life started,” she said.

Next week, Brennon and Johnson will travel to NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., to undergo preflight training before flying aboard SOFIA on the evenings of Sept. 16 and 18.

While she won’t have the ability to post live video, Brennon said she’ll be providing regular web updates of her experience for her students and others to see. Those interested may keep up with the program at the Facebook page for the SOFIA Airborne Astronomers Ambassadors Program page.

For more information on the program, visit sofia.usra.edu.

Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.