When the Sky is No Longer the Limit: Deep Space Exploration with GAVRT


“I’m sitting in a classroom in Sydney, working with educators from all over Australia and the United States, connecting online to a 34m wide Deep Space Radio Telescope in Goldstone Apple Valley California measuring radio waves from a galaxy 65 million light years away … and I’m in control”. 

This was my thought as I pressed the ‘TRACKING’ command on my computer sending a signal to California in the United States, causing a 500 ton piece of machinery to begin moving where I told it to go. 

Run in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) the Goldstone-Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) is one of a small number of large radio antenna being utilised for educational outreach programs around the world. Since its official decommission from NASA’s service, it has been made available for students to gain remote access, record and analyse radio signals from a wide number of sources found in the observable universe. From quasars, and galaxies millions of light years away to the magnetic flux of planet closer to home like Jupiter and Saturn, the data gathered through the GAVRT program by students is real data, from real sources and is making real contributions to scientific understanding. There are also real and immediate applications the students can contribute to through their work.

As teachers, we gathered for a 2-day workshop with GAVRT representatives Len Ricardo (Former Operations Manager at Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex), Dr David Jauncey (CSIRO) and Shannon McConnell (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to learn how to operate the GAVRT Antenna remotely and how to engage students in the three main outreach programs currently being offered through the GAVRT program. Over the course of 2 days we were to become one of the first Australian Educators to learn how to measure the magnetic flux of Jupiter and contribute to NASA’s monitoring and planning of the current JUNO Space mission, take measurements of distant quasars and galaxies and record and analyse broad spectrum radio frequencies in the ongoing search for possible evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence as part of the SETI program.

The key aim was to discover how to get students active and involved in these programs, operating the antenna remotely, recording, analysing and discussing the implications of the data.

The hands-on practical learning environment this program provides opens the door for a wide range of opportunities for students to engage in long term data gathering and analysis. This fits perfectly with the requirements for the new NSW syllabus for the science subjects such as Physics and Investigating Science. Not only that, there are broad applications for other senior subjects including ICT and Maths.

In addition it was evident how these activities can support the Stage 4 and Stage 5 components of the ‘Physical World’ and ‘Earth & Space’ syllabus units. From Electromagnetic Spectrum to life cycle of stars, components of the universe, planetary characteristics and features, through to space exploration and long distance communication, mathematical computation, data limits and analysis, building a wide range of numeracy skills and ICT capacity, the GAVRT program has something to offer all students.

All three facilitators were amazing in their support and willingness to share their experiences with us making the learning experience much more engaging and meaningful. Within a short period of time we were operating the equipment confidently and generating may ideas how we could use this capability in our classrooms, schools and local communities.

Exciting highlights from the experience included watching the 500 ton antenna move under our control. This simple visual connection is such a powerful tool for engagement with students when they finally realise they are in control of such a large piece of technology on the other side of the world. Many students who will come to make use of the GAVRT antenna will have never had the opportunity to connect what they do in the classroom to the wider world, let alone the much wider galaxy and universe. The dawning realisation of just what the implications of these activities mean will take a while to sink in but when they do, the effect on the students will be profound.

The second major highlight came from using the GAVRT to measure and record a wide range of radio frequencies across a patch of sky and subsequently analysing the data, instructing the computer to ignore obvious signs of interference or localised radio sources in an effort to uncover the elusive signals from the distant reaches of our galaxies that only last for a second or two in a very narrow radio band of frequencies. Once found these “Bleeps” indicate a possible source of radio data that could be the result of intelligent life. This exercise highlights the importance of repetition and scientific methodology for if the same signal is found in the same place with the same characteristics over the course of many observations and data gathering events, it could become a viable candidate in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Finally, being able to measure the flux of Jupiter’s magnetic field and feed that data back into NASA for their own analysis that will assist them in piloting the JUNO satellite though the very narrow ‘safe’ passages inside these magnetic fields is an example of how students can contribute to real and immediate science with long term implications.

I have already begun to take advantage of what I have learned through this process and the excitement with my students is beginning to grow as I put in place the pieces to allow us to get access to the GAVRT antenna and start making cosmic recordings of our own.

Thank you to One Giant Leap Australia and Macquarie University for hosting and organising the workshop, without your support these opportunities would not be possible for our students.

So for now, keep your eyes on the skies and together we’ll see what’s out there.

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Murray Henstock
Murray is a Science teacher with the NSW Department of Education with a passion for space science, astronomy, robotics, rocketry and STEM/STEAM. He has attended Space Camp USA and Space Camp Turkey and has worked with representatives of the national and international space and astronomy community to bring engaging learning experiences to his students and their community. Murray lives in Sydney with his 2 children and can often be found looking up at the stars and exploring the hidden mysteries of the universe.
Murray Henstock

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