LASP brings New Horizons science to rural Colorado communities

LASP planetary scientist, Fran Bagenal, helps Hayden Middle School students construct a clay model of the solar system during her visit to the rural Colorado community. (Courtesy Fran Bagenal/LASP)

LASP planetary scientist, Fran Bagenal, helps Hayden Middle School students construct a clay model of the solar system during her visit to the rural Colorado community. (Courtesy Fran Bagenal/LASP)

After a decade-long voyage through the solar system, NASA’s New Horizons mission is scheduled to fly by Pluto in July 2015, carrying with it the LASP-built Student Dust Counter (SDC). The New Horizons mission also involves LASP scientists and CU-Boulder students, who await data from the unprecedented approach and close encounter of the dwarf planet and its five known moons.

In preparation for the July encounter, LASP Office of Communications and Outreach staff recently traveled to two rural Colorado communities and delivered Pluto-related programming to students and their families. Accompanying them was Fran Bagenal, LASP planetary scientist, CU-Boulder professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences, and New Horizons mission co-investigator. Bagenal served as the New Horizons and Pluto science expert during the school visits and gave public presentations to both communities.

Students from the elementary and middle schools in Hayden, Colorado learned about the size and scale of various solar system bodies, and calculated one-way light time for radio communications to reach spacecraft studying those objects. With four and a half hours required for New Horizons to receive commands from Earth, Bagenal discussed with students the potential perils involved in operating the spacecraft, including any yet-undiscovered moons and debris orbiting Pluto.

The outreach program to Trinidad included CU-Boulder students from the CU-STARs (Science, Technology and Astronomy Recruits) program, which is designed to recruit first-year University students from diverse backgrounds into scientific careers, and is sponsored by the CU department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. CU-STARs members taught astronomy concepts through a series of presentations and activities during twelve classes at Trinidad High School, then set up telescopes for an astronomical viewing “star party” to engage the public before and after Bagenal’s lecture.

Members of the CU-STARs program, led by CU-Boulder Associate Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, Erica Ellingson (second from left), accompanied LASP Office of Communications and Outreach staff on a visit to Trinidad, Colorado to present astronomy concepts to students and to host a "star party" for the community. (Courtesy CU-STARs/LASP)

Members of the CU-STARs program, led by CU-Boulder Associate Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, Erica Ellingson (second from left), accompanied LASP Office of Communications and Outreach staff on a visit to Trinidad, Colorado to present astronomy concepts to students and to host a “star party” for the community. (Courtesy CU-STARs/LASP)

The public lectures in Steamboat Springs and Trinidad were attended by hundreds of interested individuals, anxious to learn more about the final, unexplored frontiers of our solar system. Bagenal leads the plasma team for New Horizons and has been one of the education and public outreach leaders for the mission. Her main area of expertise is the study of charged particles trapped in planetary magnetic fields.

“Visiting the schools is just great fun,” said Bagenal. “The students are so enthusiastic and have all sorts of excellent questions. Opportunities like these totally reward my twenty-five years of working on a mission to Pluto.”

The LASP outreach program is part of the “CU in the Community” series, which is led by the CU-Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement and regularly brings CU-Boulder faculty members to Trinidad, Colorado, in an effort to present the latest research, and academic and cultural resources from the University.

Fran Bagenal will give a talk on “NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto” at CU’s Fiske Planetarium on Thursday, March 12 at 7 p.m. Admission to the talk is free to CU-Boulder students with a valid ID.

Watch Fran Bagenal’s Jan. 28, 2015 public lecture in Steamboat Springs:

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email More...