Student Space Telescope Network
Alex Johnson, Charles Van Steenwyk, and Russell Genet
California Polytechnic State University
Research supported by astronomical observations is most efficient when there is a synergistic balance between a few large and many small telescopes. The small telescopes make the large telescopes more effective by providing follow-up and time-series observations, helping recruit and train the next generation of astronomers and instrumentalists, and serving as test beds for new instrumentation. The cost-effectiveness of small, ground-based research telescopes has been significantly enhanced through full automation and production-line assembly of robotic telescopes with apertures up to 1.0 meter.
Research cost-effectiveness can also be enhanced with a synergistic balance between paid researchers (professional astronomers and their graduate students) and unpaid researchers (undergraduate students and citizen scientists). Over the past decade, the one-semester Astronomy Research Seminar has, with 150 papers and 500 coauthors, demonstrated the ability of undergraduate and high school student teams to conduct published astronomical research in a single semester. These teams are supported by a community of practice that includes professional astronomers, educators, and experienced citizen scientists, and by the nonprofit Institute for Student Astronomical Research.
Astronomical research is also most efficient when there is a synergistic balance between ground and space telescopes. Space telescopes, free from atmospheric scintillation, jitter, and absorption, can provide highly precise observations over a wide range of wavelengths. The proposed Student Space Telescope Network (SSTN) could, at low cost, simultaneously improve the balance between large and small space telescopes, between space and ground telescopes, and between paid and unpaid researchers. Low cost could be achieved by taking advantage of CubeSat technology, NASA-supplied CubeSat launches, and the extensive use of undergraduate students in telescope design, fabrication, testing, and operation.
A modest six-month conceptual study (final report end of December 2018) suggests that a promising research area for the SSTN would be highly precise, multi-band, photometric observations of exoplanet transits, variable stars, and other time-variable objects. A 12-unit CubeSat (20x20x30 cm) is currently the largest CubeSat that can be readily tested at university facilities and launched for them by NASA. It could accommodate an ~20 cm telescope, camera, and supporting CubeSat bus components such as a star tracker, reaction wheels, propulsion system, and computer. Multiple telescopes in low-Earth orbit (LEO) could provide continuous target coverage. Faculty-supervised undergraduate engineering and physics/astronomy students in the PolySat program at Cal Poly, in conjunction with students and faculty at the other SSTN Consortium universities, could design, fabricate, and test the space telescopes for the network. Students would then operate the network and student teams would reduce and analyze the observations, submit their results for publication, and provide presentations at conferences and workshops.
Observational time leading to published contributions to astronomical research would be made available to undergraduate students, high school students, and citizen scientists nationwide. Their research could significantly advance our scientific knowledge. Published research helps students gain entry to graduate schools—often with scholarships. Publication also helps provide the motivational self-identity as scientists or engineers that many students need to navigate the long road to advanced degrees and a professional career. The dozens of schools and thousands of students that could eventually be involved in an economical SSTN and its published research could, over time, significantly advance both science and engineering education across the nation.
The SSTN will be one of the topics explored in depth at the CubeSat Astronomy Workshop on Friday-Saturday, April 26-27, 2019, at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The CubeSat Astronomy Workshop will immediately follow the 16th Annual CubeSat Developer’s Workshop on April 23-25. All those interested in developing and using CubeSats for astronomical research are welcome.