Forty Thousand Children Help Build Space "Disco Ball"

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 3, 2001
Disco isn't dead; it's just gone high-tech—very high tech.

A 200-pound (90-kilogram) satellite covered in 1,500 mirrors hand-polished by schoolchildren around the world was launched into a low orbit at the weekend to measure the effects of solar storms on the density of Earth's upper atmosphere.

The satellite, Starshine 3, was launched from the new Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Starshine 3 is the third in a series of spacecraft being constructed as part of Project Starshine, a program designed to get schoolchildren from around the world interested in space by doing work that has real scientific value.

"This is a mechanism for stimulating interest in math and science," said Gil Moore, a retired aerospace engineer from Monument, Colorado who coordinates the wide array of volunteers and donors who make the project possible.

The mirrors on the satellite reflect sunlight like a disco ball does the spotlights on a dance floor, making the spacecraft visible to the naked eye just after sunset and just before sunrise as far north as Point Barrow, Alaska and as far south as McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

It is believed that the orbit of Starshine 3 is such that it is possible for almost every child in the world to be in a position from which it may be seen.

Schoolchildren from around the world will help plot the course of Starshine 3 as it orbits Earth and is eventually dragged down into the denser regions of Earth's atmosphere and burns up. Solar storms increase the density of the Earth's upper atmosphere, which causes the orbit of satellites to decay.

The data gathered via Project Starshine on how the density of the atmosphere is affected by solar storms will help scientists better maneuver the International Space Station and the space shuttle so as to avoid collision with wayward space debris.

"Lots of debris is in orbit and every once in a while debris will come close enough that we will need to make an avoidance burn so debris won't whack the shuttle," said Moore. "The more accurately we know the density of the atmosphere and how it fluctuates during solar storms, the more accurately we know how the debris behaves and thus how to maneuver the shuttle."

Children Polished Mirrors

Some 40,000 children from 26 countries around the world are participants in Project Starshine. The children are responsible for polishing the aluminum mirrors that are attached to the outside of the spherical satellites. The mirrors reflect sunlight, making the satellites visible on Earth.

Moore and other project volunteers provide the students with the all the materials and instructions they need to polish the mirrors. Each school is given two mirrors to work on, one to be placed on the satellite and the other to keep as a souvenir.

Teachers report an enthusiastic student response to the project.

"The idea of working on a mirror that would fly in a spacecraft really got them interested," said Gary Brekke, a science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Community High School in Fargo, North Dakota. "They like doing things like this that are meaningful and useful to the scientific community."

Brekke said it took his students three to four hours to polish each mirror well. The task involves grinding off tool marks from the machine that made the mirrors, polishing the surface to near perfection, and checking the flatness of the mirror to ensure it will properly reflect sunlight and be visible from Earth.

"This is a cool way to get students to do science, not just read about science," said Brekke. "It is a great way to get them involved in the process of real scientific work."

Observation Posts

Brekke's students will join thousands of students from around the world tracking Starshine 3 as it orbits Earth, its orbit becoming shorter and shorter as solar storms cause the density of Earth's upper atmosphere to increase.

Detailed instructions on how to track the satellite are posted on the Project Starshine Web site. Students are first encouraged to learn how to spot the satellite in the night sky and then how to help plot the orbit of the satellite with the use of star charts, short wave radios, digital watches, and the global positioning system.

Students will post their detailed observations on the Internet. Project scientists will use this data to calculate the Starshine 3's orbit, helping them better understand the effects of solar storms.

"This project would not be if it were not for the fact that the students are involved," said Moore.

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