Scientist takes students on astronomical journey


As the supervisor of the electronic systems group at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory - and parent of two Glenelg Country School students - Al Chacos knows the challenges involved in making science come alive for young people.

So Chacos jumped at the chance to ask his friend and colleague Alan Stern, the principal investigator for NASA's coming mission to Pluto, to speak to 500 Glenelg Country students this week.

And Stern did not disappoint as he took the group, sixth-graders through seniors, on a virtual trip into the far reaches of the solar system and gave them a peek at the inner-workings of the $600 million New Horizon Mission to Pluto.

"It's very easy to get scientists, but they talk 10,000 feet over kids' heads," Chacos said after Wednesday's presentation. "I knew Dr. Stern was the perfect person to communicate with children."

Gwen Weaver, a 17-year-old senior from Columbia with aspirations of becoming an astrophysicist, was enthusiastic after listening to Stern.

"I should have gone to the University of Colorado," Weaver joked shortly after learning about the role University of Colorado students have played in the project. "I applied to William and Mary. It's OK. ... There's graduate school."

Stern, director of the Southwest Research Institute Department of Space Sciences in Boulder, Colo., said he gives about two school presentations a month. Glenelg Country was his first this year to a school in Maryland, a state that has a heritage of aerospace research at such institutions as APL and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"I feel that it is our responsibility to communicate science and technology," Stern said.

Stern packed a variety of facts into his 45-minute presentation that included colorful images illuminating a screen in the school's dimmed gymnasium.

NASA has never reached Pluto and its moon Charon by space probe - it is estimated that Pluto is 2.7 billion miles away from Earth. A successful mission would mean the United States would be the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Pluto.

Students learned that experts believe Pluto has an ocean just below the planet's icy surface and that the mission will be used to build the most comprehensive survey and picture of the planet to date.

Students also learned that the mission will take some time to complete. Stern projected that the New Horizon probe will reach Jupiter in 2007 and Pluto in 2015. The probe is expected to be launched Jan. 11.

"That's appealing to us all," Jessica Irvin, a 17-year-old senior from Columbia, said of the launch. "It's going to be happening in our lifetime."

Irvin was particularly impressed when she learned that there could be nearly 200 planets within the Kuiper Belt, an area just beyond Pluto that scientists hope to learn more about during the mission.

"That's a profound thing for me," said Irvin who will study pre-med and earth science at Brown University.

Stern said the students at Glenelg Country were very responsive to his presentation.

"I measure from the number of hands," Stern said. "There were a lot of questions and a lot more than we could get to. I thought they were very good questions."

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