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Scientists, Students Study Space Storms in THEMIS Project

May 16, 2007 at 3:50 PM EDT
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High school students and teachers in Alaska are helping NASA scientists collect data for a mission that aims to learn more about the space weather that causes the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: For centuries, scientists have been fascinated by auroras, the mysterious lights that blaze across the sky in the far northern and southern regions of the Earth.

Some things about the auroras are known: that they happen when the sun blows storms of electrons toward the planet and interfere with the Earth’s magnetic field. Those same storms can also disrupt communications, affect satellites, and even make astronauts sick.

But a lot of questions about auroras remain. Some scientists have come to an out-of-the-way place to look for answers: Petersburg, Alaska, and the playground behind Mr. Trautman’s 11th-grade geology class.

VICTOR TRAUTMAN, Science Teacher: This is the real deal. This is real science. And what it’s really trying to do is to determine the effects that we find the sun has on Earth. And, really, what would happen without our Earth’s magnetic field, the Earth wouldn’t be here. We’d lose our moisture. We’d lose our atmosphere. We would look like Mars or we’d look like the moon.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In February, NASA and scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, launched five satellites to find out exactly where the storms that cause auroras originate. Spaced out in different orbits, the satellites measure smaller solar bursts called substorms that disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field. They can also cause the beautiful shimmering and dancing the auroras do in the nighttime sky.

But the scientists need to make other measurements closer to the Earth’s surface, so magnetometers, Earth-based data collectors, were placed in Petersburg and nine other northern locations. Petersburg, a town of 2,600, was chosen because it’s remote and far away from magnetic interference found in densely populated areas.

Scientists also thought it would be a rare chance to involve rural kids in a real-world science experiment, kids like Carl Hernandez, who plays drums in the pep band. He’s been watching the auroras all of his life.

CARL HERNANDEZ, Student: Usually over the mountains, you’ll see kind of a faint coloring. And it’s usually kind of starts off as a light green or blue, and then, I mean, these ribbons of light will just light up the whole sky. They come out, and they’re just sort of flowing, and dancing, and it’s really beautiful.

Effects of magnetic storms

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They may be beautiful, but Trautman says they can cause havoc. That's why scientists want to know more.

VICTOR TRAUTMAN: The first place you would see it, if you're in -- like a dish TV or you have cable television, it will begin to disrupt those communications. And it has been known in some severe cases to start causing long metal wires, for example, power grids to charge. It causes a current to flow in the Earth.

So the Alaska pipeline, which is about 800 miles long, is a huge conductive wire. It would actually cause a current flowing into that, which could technically cause some of the corrosion problems that have been plaguing our pipeline in the past.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After a heavy snowfall, the magnetometer that measures subtle changes in the Earth's magnetic field sometimes has to be dug out. It's a great teaching tool for Trautman.

VICTOR TRAUTMAN: So what we're going to try to do here today is, are there ways that we, as a group, can make the magnetic field move, like a solar storm would?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He wanted to show the kids that even a small magnet can make a difference if it's close to the magnetometer. When one student held a magnet over the device, another student, in a nearby pickup, could monitor the change in the Earth's magnetic pull at that point. It showed up as a spike in a graph on the Web site that tracks the magnetometer's readings.

VICTOR TRAUTMAN: There is this feeling that nothing important ever happens in Petersburg, but this really has. It has given us a direction, that, hey, science is important.

Exposing students to science

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's certainly true for 17-year-old Hernandez, who had never set foot inside a science class until last year, when his family moved to Petersburg. Before that, Hernandez spent most of his young life living in a house with no electricity in the Alaskan wilderness.

CARL HERNANDEZ: We'd go out in the mornings, split firewood, bring it in, heat the house, cook breakfast, and then go down -- we have all trails. There's no roads where we live. And then we use small boats on skiffs with outboards, and go three miles -- it's open water -- three miles of open water to the nearest town and go to school. There's a small public school there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But things have changed since moving to the big city and meeting Mr. Trautman.

CARL HERNANDEZ: Mr. Trautman, he's my science teacher, and he really made it come alive for us. I mean, he made it interesting, and fun, and I sort of got hooked.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Carl now has a hunch about the auroras.

CARL HERNANDEZ: It could potentially be a form of alternative energy, because the magnetic fields and the collapse when the auroras happen creates a lot of electricity in our outer atmosphere. And I think that maybe, if we learn more about it, we could understand how to harness some of that and maybe draw it into the Earth and use it for power.

VICTOR TRAUTMAN: You find with, like Carl, a lot of it is amazement. He's part of the actual process. You know, when you're isolated, everything happens every place else. Nothing ever happens to you, unless it's bad. And so it gives kids like Carl a chance to participate in something that he's actually part of and it's part of a big picture.

Following the magnetometer readings

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The project has also made a strong impression on 17-year-old Laura McKay. She's now thinking about a science career.

LAURA McKay, Student: It is a really big deal, because it's nationwide. It's not just a little small town. We're included in something that's really big. It's going to affect people everywhere to get this data and to use it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sixteen-year-old Erin Streuli is now also interested in a scientific-based career. At her home computer, she can follow the readings from the school's magnetometer, to track the substorms and the auroras they create, whetting her younger sister Sierra's curiosity.

SIERRA STREULI, Student: When it's really high, is that when there's going to be lots of northern lights?

ERIN STREULI, Student: Yes, and it's saying that there's a big magnetic storm, and it only -- it's going to have northern lights if it's clear out.

I know when to go look for them now. And instead of just like waiting outside, I know when they're going to be there and I know, like, if it's going to be like a clear day, then I'll probably see northern lights that night.

Interest in project grows

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The auroras project has become infectious. A number of Trautman's students have developed podcasts on their computers, which are now being used to teach lower-class students about the program.

VICTOR TRAUTMAN: If you have any questions, wait until the end the podcast. But the key is, don't ask me. These guys are the experts.

PODCAST NARRATOR: Looking up at the night sky, colorful bright lights flash before you, different colors, shapes, patterns. Have you ever wondered how they're formed?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: If the kids at Petersburg High School are any indication, the science genie is out of the bottle. Living far from the scientists, they've joined the mainstream of science.

JIM LEHRER: You can send questions about this project to a NASA expert and to Betty Ann Bowser by visiting our Web site at