Adjacent to the World War II fighter jets at the Pacific Aviation Museum is a classroom not many visitors know even exists. The facility is used for student groups usually interested in aviation and flight simulators but lately the museum is going beyond the limits of our earth’s atmosphere and exploring objects in deep space.

The workshop is called Astrophotography and geared for students from 5th to 8th graders. According to the PAM press release, “The workshop is part of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Youth Capture the Colorful Cosmos III (YCCC III) program, offering students the opportunity to research, explore, and photograph the cosmos using telescopes owned and maintained by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.”

Having visited PAM a number of times I was curious what the connection was between WWII historic planes and astronomy and what lessons about astronomy could they impart on these students.

Students will use telescopes maintained by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Amado, Arizona, to photograph astronomy projects.
Students will use telescopes maintained by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Amado, Arizona, to photograph the night sky. Courtesy: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Shauna Tonkin, Director of Education of the museum told me that, “At Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, we believe that our unique setting and story provide a powerful means of igniting imagination and educating people about the history and technology of aviation and aerospace.  Although we honor the past through our exhibits and museum collection, we also want to inspire young people to continue the legacy of exploration and discovery made possible by pioneers of flight.”

In order to photograph the night sky, students will access Harvard-Smithsonian telescopes located in the desert in Amado, Arizona. This is all done remotely by accessing automated telescopes that can be controlled over the Internet. The network of telescopes is called the MicroObservatory and is managed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

There’s a public version that gives you a good idea what the students go through. It’s called Observing with NASA and allows you to program a snapshot of everything from the moon and planets to stars and nebulae like the Pleiades and Ring Nebula and galaxies like Andromeda and the Pinwheel Galaxy.

The system will then send you a file of your images. You can perform some basic image processing to your file using a free software package called MicroObservatory Image which you can download and allows you to colorize images using several false color tables, invert an image’s color table, increase image contrast and many more image processing functions.

First day activities include submitting your image requests since it will take about 24 hours before the files are delivered. Students then get a chance to work on exercises to familiarize themselves with the components of a telescope. This is where the students get some hands on experience with the very popular Do-It-Yourself electronics toolkit called LittleBits.

LittleBits consists of a variety of self contained modules that snap together creating a larger system. It’s easy to snap together a power module to a temperature sensor, a motor controlling a pair of wheels, a proximity sensor and a LED display module. Not sure what I just built but it was pretty easy.

There is a near infinite number of combinations. For the telescope exercise, students will use LittleBits to create systems that simulate features of a robotic telescope, including a device that points to a specific location, one that measures exposure time and one to collect light and measure brightness.

A photo of the moon using a "blend rainbow" filter.
A photo of the moon using a “blend rainbow” filter. Alaina Haws

On the second day, when the images arrive, students will then get to learn about pixels, photon gathering and adjusting exposure lengths using the MicroObservatory Image software. There’s a Red, Blue, Green filter exercise that reveals different aspects of the cosmic image. Students can also get artistic and add false color palettes to their images to create unique works of art.

Another exercise I found intriguing was called AstroPoetry. Students would provide a word of description to their classmate’s cosmic image. Alaina Haws, Education Programs Coordinator at PAM tells me this exercise often results in a discussion of what is a verb, noun, adjective and adverb. Ultimately the words are fitted together to come up with a poem for the image, hence AstroPoetry.

Students finally put together a poster summarizing their experience over the 2-day workshop. Haws explains, “In a world that is seems increasingly small with the internet and cell phones, it’s a great opportunity to introduce kids to the idea that there is so much more out there in this ever expanding universe that we cannot learn about from a quick Google search. These places are hundreds or millions of light years away, and there are certainly other objects beyond them as well.”

The AstroPhotography workshops have expanded to two dates in October, 11-12 and 13-14. You can find more information about the program and register here. A few lucky students who get selected from this workshop will get a chance to travel to Washington, D.C., to take part in a Youth Summit in February 2017.

Haws tells me this workshop has something for everyone, “Kids who came in apathetic to the astrophotography and wanted to engineer were as proud of their final images as the artistic kids who came into the camp looking for that kind of an outlet.”

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