Project Sunscope

Project Sunscope

Project Sunscope is an independent project in which six high school students from Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy use The Franklin Institute's 10-inch f/15 Zeiss refractor telescope to collect and deliver live images of the Sun to The Franklin Institute's website. Working with Dr. Derrick Pitts, The Franklin Institute's Chief Astronomer, the students have designed a 45-minute process that will generate a web-ready composite image of the sun as seen through a white-light or Hydrogen Alpha filter. The students are now focusing on how to capture images of the sun and upload the images to the Institute's website in a shorter amount of time.

Currently, the Project Sunscope team consists of Tyler Morales, Allen Yang, Alex Johnson, Jesus Jimenez and Winston Wright, all junior-year students at Science Leadership Academy, a project-based high school developed in partnership between The Franklin Institute and the School District of Philadelphia. Zach Atkins, a senior attending Abington Friends School was an original founding member of the team, but has since graduated. Science Leadership Academy has an individualized learning program that allows Tyler, Winston, Alex, Allen, and Jesus to work on this project every Wednesday at The Franklin Institute. During this time, the team meets with Derrick in person to discuss various aspects of project including recent progress, next steps to take, future considerations, and discuss any ideas or sources that the team discovers. The entire team meets every other Saturday to take digital image sections of the sun. On the intervening Saturdays just part of the team meets to process images and plan the next week's imaging and processing schedule.

Using white-light and hydrogen-alpha filters, the students are able to safely view and image the sun. The objective of the SLA team's project is to establish a long-term, ongoing multi-year, multi-student project to regularly image the sun, monitoring its visible surface behavior for the duration of the current sunspot cycle (about 11 years). The acquired images are the beginning of a long-term, hopefully multi-year image record of locally observed solar phenomena. More importantly, the activity will introduce and engage generations of students in a solar physics project, with tangible results.

Atkins, who has successfully imaged the sun using the Bloom Observatory refractor, has taught the SLA team how to do the solar photography and the image processing. Adobe Photoshop "Lightroom" is the critical software component used to process the digital images taken with a digital camera at the telescope. "Lightroom" works well for cataloging images, selecting image picks and weeding out rejects, and even performing effective and quick developing of the solar images. Its many parameters of image correction give the user the necessary tools to accurately represent the true filtered appearance of the sun while preserving the discrete surface features and contrasts that indicate various levels of solar activity. So far, the students have made incredible progress in the two years the project's been running. They use a digital single lens reflex camera and two video cameras, both compatible with the Zeiss telescope. Each camera can take pictures or video footage of the sun when connected to the telescope. They also have found image-processing software needed to assemble and edit the composites. They've also been developing their skills putting together a budget plan for the project, itemizing costs for each piece of the equipment they have and equipment they feel could improve their process in the future. With the current suite of equipment, they can image the sun in sections, assemble the sections into a composites and post them online. Right now the team is learning more about astronomy and astro-imaging to increase their understanding of how to improve their processes.

They've also shared what they've learned about student projects like this one with teachers nationwide through a presentation given at the 2012 National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, where they encouraged teachers to start projects like Sunscope in their schools. In May 2012, Tyler, Allen, Alex, and Jesus presented the project to teachers at the annual EduCon conference held at their school, with hopes of encouraging teachers to use the solar images in their classes to educate students about solar activity.

The immediate goal of the project is to generate a multi-year photographic record of solar activity during this particular solar cycle of activity using Bloom Observatory's refractor telescope. As a multi-year project, the present students are recruiting younger class students to take over the project when they leave. It's SLA students doing real science as part of their studies and making use of our observatory to accomplish their goal.

- Tyler Morales, Jesus Jimenez, Allen Yang, Winston Wright, Alex Johnson, Zach Atkins, Derrick Pitts