Satellite class a success

From: Tom Wagner (
Date: Sun Jun 25 2006 - 00:41:09 EDT

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    A short time ago I asked for advice in regard to teaching a middle school 
    age class about satellite observing. I just finished it and can say that as 
    far as I can tell it was a BIG success. One parent said their child was 
    exposed to "a lot of new information." I found the most effective tool for 
    getting them excited about observing was to use Heavens-Above and good 
    applets. The middle June scheduling could not have been better timed for 
    seeing the ISS going over repeatedly. On the first night I got a really nice 
    video of it slowly dropping below the local horizon, a field some 200 feet 
    away. I used my Sony digital camera set on color slow shutter which captures 
    light down to about 6th magnitude.
    I rewarded the kids when they saw a satellite the night before. Tootsie 
    rolls always go a long way. Two students saw another satellite while 
    watching for the ISS. From their description we were able to ID it and get 
    the range and altitude and everything else you could ever want to know about 
    a Cosmos rocket. I think they were impressed. To ID it I used TheSky, a 
    planetarium program, and a power point projector. As they watched what was 
    moving through the sky, at the right time one of them exclaimed, "That's 
     it!"  We then went to H-A to verify its magnitude to make sure.
    I learned that one does not want to show this applet: too soon in the course 
    because every time you turn your back they are playing with it! LOL Instead 
    of taking their break many would come in early and try to get a satellite to 
    orbit the earth and the moon. They also loved the J-Track 3D applet at:
    Using J-Track I asked them look for a satellite with a highly eccentric 
    orbit. Then they were challenged to get one satellite, using the 'Earth to 
    Moon Experiment' applet, to orbit in a stable, relatively high eccentric 
    orbit. The person that accomplished the best one of those was a parent that 
    stopped by! The Mac computers didn't display the animated graphic at this 
    website but I was able to project it for them 
    so they could see things like, where SUITSAT was at that moment.
    Each participant was called upon to find the height of the perigee and the 
    apogee of "their" satellite. From those values they calculated the distance 
    it would be from a 6 inch Styrene ball. We demonstrated that information by 
    using two colored pins each (some of which had to be on sticks) stuck into 
    the ball. Remarkably, we discovered that AMSAT OSCAR 40 (AO-40, USSPACECOM 
    Catalog No: 26609) has an incredible eccentricity of 0.8! That one required 
    a long stick for sure! Its orbit is illustrated here:
    To put things into perspective we did these exercises that I came up with. 
    First using sidewalk chalk, string, and a measuring tape we marked out the 
    size of the Hubble mirror and the spacecraft on the parking lot. They were 
    impressed! [Next year I'm going to have them trace the outline of a full 
    sized shuttle.] We measured out the length of the "wingspan" of the ISS 
    solar panels. They turned out to be exactly the width of the parking lot! 
    Lastly I took a tiny printed image of the ISS and placed it the distance 
    that would make it appear the same size as we would see it if it were 
    straight overhead. We observed that through a telescope and binoculars. For 
    years I've wanted to see what that would look like!! With handheld 7X 
    binocs, I could only vaguely see a shape.
    The last thing I did for them was hand out anaglyph (Spy Kids 3D) glasses 
    (for them to keep) and told them to Google "the best of mars" 3D. That led 
    them here: 
    While looking at the surreal images they whooped and hollered till class was 
    Thanks for the help! If I do it again I will be a lot better prepared!
    Tom  Iowa  USA
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