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Leading-edge space research in the classroom: what the students found and how it's helping astronomers

Sixth form students have been given the unique opportunity to present their own findings from a project that supports the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) mission. Their findings will help identify potential targets for the Webb telescope due to launch in autumn this year.

Cosmic Mining project

Mission: Analyse data from the Spitzer Space Telescope to identify stellar objects in contribution to the first fully classified catalogue of these sources for astronomers.

Objective: To select potential targets of interest for the Webb telescope and ultimately help scientists uncover the history of our Universe.

The Cosmic Mining project started in 2018 and has allowed students across the UK to gain experience and contribute to real science. The project is a collaboration between STFC, the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) and the Webb UK campaign.

Sixth form students from Bohunt School in Hampshire took part in the project and were given the exciting opportunity to present their own findings at the IRIS Virtual Conference.

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The Bohunt students learnt how to examine and classify stellar objects, finding 14 planetary nebula (shells of luminous gas emitted by dying stars) by a tell-tale turning point in their spectra. The project gave students a taste of what real research is like while also learning and then using techniques used in professional astronomical research to examine the data.

One student who took part in the research, said:

“I liked that it was completely new. We were looking at the spectra and knew from the beginning that no one had looked at them before and that was really exciting.”

Luke Fuller, science teacher at Bohunt School, added:

“I am incredibly proud of what my students have achieved this year whilst taking part in the Cosmic Mining project. They have learned new skills that most students wouldn’t encounter until later on in university and have shown an incredible work ethic; working independently and in small groups to classify their spectra and produce their research artefacts. I look forward to seeing them become mentors, passing on their experiences to next year’s participants.”

The world’s premier space observatory

Astronomers and education staff from STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) worked with IRIS to develop the project’s classroom activity in which students examine and classify this rich collection of existing data.

The ultimate goal is for students to collaborate with UKATC astronomers on the selection of potential targets for Webb and the development of an observing proposal which makes the scientific case for pointing the huge space observatory at these objects.

Dr Ciaran Fairhurst, STFC Public Engagement Officer at UKATC, said:

“I’ve been really blown away by the dedication of all the students working on cosmic mining over the last year. They’ve produced so much useful data, and have really quickly picked up an incredibly difficult skill interpreting spectra from telescopes. This poster is a perfect demonstration of how deeply they have understood what they are doing. It wouldn’t look out of place in the poster hall at the National Astronomy Meeting or any other professional astronomers conference.”

Dr Olivia Johnson, STFC Public Engagement Project Manager for Webb UK, said:

“Webb will be the premier space observatory for the next generation of astronomers, and we’ve worked with IRIS to set up the Cosmic Mining project to support young people to get involved in the mission from its earliest stages. I’m hugely impressed by how well the student researchers have risen to the challenge, and hope their work will identify promising targets for exploration with Webb.”

Students turned space researchers

The IRIS conference is an opportunity for young researchers across the UK to present their findings to their peers and the wider scientific community. Audience members included academics and researchers from the Imperial London, UCL, and University of Oxford in addition to CERN and Wellcome Sanger.

Jo Foster, Director for Research in Schools, said:

“We have been very impressed by the student led research we’ve seen this academic year. The fantastic examples of research from students across the UK, in both state and private education, illustrates what young people can do when given the opportunity to conduct real research at school. As you listen to their presentations, you cannot deny that their experience has enhanced their knowledge of the subjects, and for many, sparked their passion for the subject.”

For more information on the Cosmic Mining project, please visit the IRIS website.

For more information about the Webb mission and about Webb-inspired resources and programmes for schools and the general public visit the Webb UK website.

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Last updated: 29 June 2021


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