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Marita Beard flies on SOFIA again

by Hana Webber, Opinion Editor

Photo by: Arman Nikfar

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) has announced its next Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program and class of ambassadors for 2017, and Leigh physics teacher, Marita Beard, is amongst the group of educators participating in this venture. She has been selected, along with approximately 40 other teachers, to board the SOFIA spaceship and conduct aerospace research in the stratosphere.

SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy; it is NASA’s flying observatory based in Palmdale, Southern Calif. This will not be Beard’s first time on board SOFIA; six years ago, while she was still teaching at Branham in the spring of 2011, she was one amongst six teachers from across the country chosen to travel on board SOFIA. During this experience, Beard was part of the first efforts to get the program on its feet.

“It was more of a ‘guinea pig project’ the first time; the plane had only been flying for two years. There was no special educator station, but there was more freedom for the teachers to explore and roam the vicinity. We could ask questions to those working on board SOFIA,” said Beard.

Beard was invited to apply again for this year’s departure, in accordance to the new requirements: the project’s goal is to expand and extend the program to as many teachers as possible in California. Now, any STEM-related teacher is welcome to apply.

Compared to the last voyage, which was just one flight, Beard explained that this program is more organized and comprehensive. Teachers preparing for the flight have been involved in more preparation geared toward understanding how the observatory functions. The requirements mandate that the selected teachers participate in teleconferences every other week, and online courses about the observatory’s instruments, history, and science are provided.

Astronomers on board SOFIA are currently studying and exploring features of the galaxy that can’t be seen with the naked eye; specifically, star-forming areas. These areas, which have no visible light, can only be seen once the stars are born. In order to pre-locate where new stars will form, astronomers are focusing on the study of heat radiation from clouds and areas in space — and hopefully gain more clues toward deciphering the various unknowns of our galaxy.

“Most airplanes fly in the mid/upper range of the troposphere (30-35,000 feet). SOFIA needs to get above all that water vapour, because the light that astronomers are interested in collecting is absorbed by the clouds and water in the atmosphere. Some infra-red light gets through, but not all of it,” explained Beard.

It appears that Beard’s voyage will be advantageous to the greater science department here at Leigh as well. David Geller, who once built electronics for airborne equipment, is excited for his co-worker and fellow physics teacher, describing it as “pretty awesome, a great thing to do.”

“I would think that the most prominent thing is that it inspires her as a teacher, and that excitement is shared with both her students and the science department here at Leigh. I think her experience will greatly contribute to our new courses which will be offered in the future–especially Physics of the Universe, which will have more of an astronomy focus built into it,” said Geller.

 The program provides teachers with extra curriculum and hands-on activities that connect typical classwork to the data collected by astronomers. Beard, who has previously worked in astronomy, as well as for a company specializing in astronomy education, says “They’ve given me some kits to work with, and I’m excited for more hands-on labs to share with the students. I’m hoping it adds more menu items to what we can do during class and help them apply knowledge from in class.”

After already experiencing a day trip in SOFIA before, Beard is confident that she will have an enjoyable experience, with less of the “first time” nerves. This time, she hopes to gain an in-depth experience on board the observatory; one in which she will proudly represent Leigh in the study of space.

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