Picture this: a 6th grader huddles over a circuit board. Another busily drills into metal. Nearby, two students sketch plans, realizing they need to learn glass blowing. Together the four design and build a robotic telescope that will find exoplanets, circling a star other than our sun. Sound like a stretch? It's not and it's exactly what the AstroHawks have been up to over the past six months.
The group of Head-Royce 6th graders recently put the finishing touches on their first project, a robotic telescope. The AstroHawks––a parent-led club of builders and makers, unofficially associated with the School––hope to observe planets outside of our solar system. Theirs is a community-shared goal set by Project PANOPTES, a worldwide citizen science project.
Project PANOPTES (Panoptic Automated Network of Observatories for a Public Transiting Exoplanets Survey) is ambitious: “build a collaborative, worldwide network of observatories that will survey the night sky for nearby exoplanets.” Their tagline? “Discover New Worlds.”
Head-Royce students eagerly adopted this lofty goal. To plan, design, and build their robotic telescope, the AstroHawks met weekly in the workshop of Richard Shankman, HRS parent and the group’s facilitator. AstroHawks used hand and power tools in a machine shop and electronics lab, learning a wide range of skills including metalworking, electronics design, and glass blowing. Along the way, they mastered precision metal machining and electronics fabrication, often problem-solving as a team and investigating the underlying science.
Six months of hard work paid off: the students showcased their robotic telescope at Tinkerfest, Chabot Space and Science Center’s annual festival “that celebrates the creative, curious, and innovative spirit in all of us.” Throughout the busy, invigorating day, the AstroHawks educated attendees on the telescope’s construction and operation, as well as the theory and science of detecting exoplanets.
When final testing is complete, the telescope will be housed at Chabot Space and Science Center, where it will link with the Project PANOPTES’ broad network of similar robotic telescopes engaged in the search for exoplanets.
The AstroHawks plan to continue studying astronomy in partnership with Chabot, including working with and understanding equatorial telescope mounts and how that is related to the rotation of the earth, measuring the brightness of stars, and learning the various methods of detecting exoplanets. They will also work in conjunction with Chabot in support of their mission of promoting science education and space exploration for the general public.
Future building plans include a high-vacuum system and a helium-neon gas laser. Please reach out to Richard Shankman if you or your Middle School student is interested in joining the AstroHawks!
The AstroHawks explain their robotic telescope to onlookers at Chabot's Tinkerfest.