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Teens Tracking Near-Earth Asteroids At Tech

SOCORRO, N.M. July 13, 2010 – Three dozen of the world’s top high school science students have converged on New Mexico Tech for the annual Summer Science Program, or SSP. For six weeks they are spending their days in college-level lectures, and their nights imaging and measuring the speck of light from a near-earth asteroid. Tech has sponsored and hosted the SSP since 2003.

Working in teams of three, students are taking series of images of their chosen asteroid using telescopes at Etscorn Observatory, measuring its position precisely in each image, then writing software to calculate its orbital parameters from those measurements.

The Summer Science Program experience helps students focus their academic interests by the nature of the research.

“Most fundamentally, this project is something they do themselves from start to finish,” SSP Executive Director Richard Bowdon said. “They could, instead, have been an intern in a lab somewhere and they’d be helping with a much larger project, with a much smaller role. This project is difficult enough that the best students in the world are challenged. Yet, it’s compact enough that they can actually do it in six weeks.”

Students find that this intense research experience gives them crucial inspiration and preparation to major in physical science or engineering in college, Bowdon said. They get to work with university professors and meet prominent guest speakers, plus enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of Magdalena Ridge Observatory, EMRTC, and the Very Large Array, and other regional sites and attractions.

“These students are immersed in a community of scholars that is very much like a physics department, like New Mexico Tech or other top schools,” Bowdon said. “It’s an experience that helps them make better decisions about college – where to apply, where to enroll and what to major in.”

The majority of students in SSP have already taken calculus and physics in high school, but none of them have undertaken such a interdisciplinary and complex project.

“They all start with no knowledge of asteroid orbit determination,” Bowdon said. “They are all top students, but none of them have done anything like this before.”

The students’ academic record is quite impressive. 10 of the 36 have aced the math portion of the PSAT, SAT, or ACT. The median math score of the 29 who have taken the PSAT is 73 (out of 80).

New Mexico Tech provides facilities, the state government pays for New Mexico residents to attend (nine are enrolled this year), and Sandia National Labs sponsors the guest lecture series, to which the Tech community is invited.

“We’re very happy to be back for our eighth summer at New Mexico Tech. Everyone here is extremely supportive, and the facilities are perfect for our program,” Richard Bowdon said.

SSP is operated by an independent non-profit corporation. Complete information is at www.summerscience.org.

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech