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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Two Canyons educators fly amongst stars, to share experience with students

Feb 22, 2022 08:03PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High teacher Clief Castleton and Brighton High instructional coach Milo Maughan are joined by three California middle school science teachers on NASA’s Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope. (Photo courtesy of Milo Maughan/Brighton High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Just after sundown Dec. 7, 2021, Brighton High instructional coach Milo Maughan sat in the cockpit on board a flight into the stratosphere on NASA’s Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747SP jetliner modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope.

“It was kind of fun to be there and see the darkness outside as we took off,” he said. “I got to interact and talk with the pilots a bit; I spent about an hour with them as we were getting up to our altitude of about 42,000 feet (about one mile higher than commercial flights) and during that time period, the telescope was being calibrated.”

Maughan and Clief Castleton, who teaches at nearby Hillcrest High, were chosen as Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors in January 2021 to observe and interact with scientists and mission crew members aboard the world’s largest flying observatory. 

Before flying, the group of 30 secondary school and community college teachers who were chosen as ambassadors had webinars to introduce them to infrared astronomy, SOFIA and how the telescope works. They also participated in a curriculum course to learn about general astronomy—that covered everything from the solar system to galaxies to telescopes.

Then, they were invited to fly aboard SOFIA in groups of five and tour some of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California, where SOFIA resides.

The early December crew, including the two Canyons educators and three California middle school science teachers, were on their way to observe some nebula and a couple of galaxies that were research projects of other scientists who requested data when turbulence hit.

“Apparently our flight was one of the most turbulent flights that SOFIA has gone on. They expected pockets of turbulence, but we actually ended up having quite a bit. We dropped like 500 feet in that first release, and I was still in the cockpit at the time, so it was interesting hearing the pilots react to the turbulence,” he said. “Major turbulence is bad for the telescope because it can only handle so much before they have to reset it, or they can’t get the data.”

Later, Maughan was in the cabin of the modified 747 when more turbulence hit and he was amazed to see the telescope didn’t shake.

“The telescope is designed to hold still while everything else was shaking or vibrating around it,” he said, adding that it is designed to gather data for about five minutes before it’s reset to keep it steady.

During the non-turbulent times when they weren’t strapped in some of the cabin’s 20 seats, Maughan and Castleton were able to walk around to observe those working at the console.

Since the telescope is infrared, they couldn’t see images physically with their own eyes, but they could observe the computer taking information and processing it and making representations that they were able to see.

“SOFIA was mostly gathering that raw data,” he said. “One thing that was really interesting was the device that was attached at the time in detecting magnetic fields around these galaxies and the nebula.”

Maughan said that SOFIA does a loop-to-loop motion with the telescope to collect data and analyzes the data to determine the magnetic field orientation—something astronomers are able to study above 99% of the Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere that ground-based telescopes can’t see.

While that data is given to researchers who request it, Maughan said the ambassadors are given access to previous data that have been gathered from years past so they can share that with students.

During this flight, researchers took about an hour to gather data at one location, then went to another to observe for about seven different objects. One of those objects they looked at was Messier 94, a spiral galaxy in the mid-northern constellation Canes Venatici, which was discovered in 1781. Another was the Monocerotis, a nebula that resulted from a supernova.

The data collected will be analyzed, then included in a research paper that examines how the magnetic field will affect star formation in these galaxies, Maughan said.

“The structure of the galaxy is caused by magnetic fields and sometimes, we have galaxies that have the spiral galaxies that have well defined arms, so the researcher is trying to get a comparison and look if the magnetic field is doing something universally across these galaxies that causes the spiral arms to occur in the galaxy,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible and I was just blown away how technologically-advanced that telescope is, from keeping it stable to gathering the data while it’s moving during the loop-to-loop motion and using the light while doing it to determine the magnetic fields—all that science behind that was mind-blowing to me.”

Maughan said there are about five different attachments for the telescope, each specializing in different technology. Crews typically will fly several flights during the week. Their flight stretched over Utah, Arizona and New Mexico before heading west over the Pacific and back to California.

While aboard, the teachers were able to talk to different scientists running the instruments before they touched down just before sunrise Dec. 8.

“Each scientist was very interesting in terms of where they come from—not everyone’s story was the same in terms of backgrounds and routes to get there. Some of them had worked on other telescopes and applied to be on SOFIA and others had done research at the college level in terms of collecting data and analyzing it, some had only submitted research proposals and are specialists in analyzing the data they get there,” he said.

Now back on planet Earth, Maughan hopes to team up with the Brighton High astronomy teacher to see how to implement curriculum provided by NASA and share his experience on SOFIA.

“I think we’ll talk about SOFIA for a full day where I want to answer any students’ questions, show them the actual pictures and implement it into the curriculum,” he said, adding that Castleton also will follow a similar plan at Hillcrest High. “We can talk about other case studies around SOFIA and what we have learned from those reports, such as SOFIA discovered water on the moon, and not just at the poles which we already knew, but actually you could say, groundwater in the moon.”

He said it is important students learn about infrared telescope as they themselves will use infrared cameras in experiments they design.

“Using this device, they will gather data on the environment around them in a lab investigation to learn whatever they want to learn about in terms of radiation. It’s kind of like researchers submitting their proposal to SOFIA, so they can use the device to help them gather data and learn from it,” he said. “Science education has changed a lot over the last number of years. Rather than just teach what we know in science, we want students to actually do science and learn through their own investigations.”

The former Corner Canyon teacher said he’d also be willing to return to that school or speak at other schools to share his experience.

“The chance to go and experience this and see what scientists are doing on a regular basis was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Maughan said. “It was really fun to see firsthand what we’re