Tracking an Asteroid: An Engineer Girl’s SSP Experience of a Lifetime

Posted Friday, February 3, 2017 at 6:26 AM

Associate Program Officer, National Academy of Engineering

"Alice Zhao spent her summer doing Astrophysics and Aerospace Engineering research and making connections that were out of this world."

Tracking an Asteroid: An Engineer Girl’s SSP Experience of a Lifetime

PostedFriday, February 3, 2017 at 7:05 AM

Tracking an Asteroid:  An Engineer Girl’s SSP Experience of a Lifetime

"Saying our last goodbyes to the observatory in which we spent 400 hours problem-solving and conducting research" Photo courtesy of Alice Zhao

Author: Alice Zhao

“Local Teen Tracks Asteroid”

The press release continued:

“Over 39 intense days last summer, 36 high school students operated a research-grade telescope to take images of a near-earth asteroid, then wrote software in Python to measure its position precisely and calculate its orbital path—including the chance it will impact Earth in the future.”

Imagine looking at the stars with your friends until 3:00 am, hoping to spot the asteroid, being sucked in by lectures on black holes, and experiencing what it’s like to engage in Astrophysics and Aerospace Engineering research—that was what my summer was like. The Summer Science Program (SSP) gave me an unequivocal passion for research, engineering, and collaboration. SSP is co-sponsored by Caltech, MIT, New Mexico Tech, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

With only 39 immersive days to cover college freshman physics, programming, calculus and astronomy, and concepts needed to determine the orbit of a near earth asteroid, interactive lectures were stacked on top of one another. Each table accommodated three students and came with a whiteboard and clickers to answer multiple-choice questions.

In high school, when the teacher asks for questions only the occasional hand from that one person who sits in the front goes up. At SSP that is never the case—the classroom becomes a sea of hands from students who are genuinely intrigued by the material. At first I was afraid to ask questions because I thought I would be seen as someone who was not smart enough to understand, but SSP taught me that asking for help is a sign of curiosity, engagement, and ironically, understanding.

More than a dozen rigorous college-level physics and astronomy problems and programming assignments were handed to us weekly. At first it was daunting, but no one was alone.

SSP TelescopeSSP is a strong advocate for girls in engineering; like me, half of its participants are girls. I was able to work in a gender-balanced environment where students respected one another. Gender was never a measure of ability, and everyone surprised me with their knowledge. It was a very humbling and inspiring experience to see students from around the world working together to solve a scientific problem. I am hopeful that this is what future generations of engineering scientists will look like.

Going in with a strong determination to learn STEM will get you halfway there; the other half comes from a desire to work with others. I discovered that some of my peers were programming wizards, physics geeks, and astronomy aficionados, but others weren’t, and you do not by any means have to fit in either of those categories to contribute.

Problem sets were collected at 11:59 pm on the dot each week, and while the computer lab usually closed at 2:00 am, teacher advisors regularly ejected us at midnight to allow for more free time. This free time was greatly treasured by students; some chose to sleep, others played cards, and some even hosted quantum mechanics study meetings.

Each night, if the skies were clear, a few students were chosen to observe their near earth asteroid using a research grade telescope. The images we took would later become the data we used to track the asteroid. The heavy-duty portion of our project took place in the computer lab, when we had to write the code taken from our images as inputs to calculate the position, velocity and orbit of the near earth asteroid. Although we probably put in 400 hours in that lab during the five weeks, I am eager to go back and work with others who are passionate for science. The research project culminated in a nine-page research paper, and a 50-year forward simulation of the asteroid that we submitted to The International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Minor Planet Center, the “single worldwide location for receipt and distribution of positional measurements of minor planets, comets and outer irregular natural satellites of the major planets.” (retrieved from http://minorplanetcenter.net/)

Most notably, SSP taught me why launching anything into space is extremely expensive and dangerous, which left me wanting to study aerospace engineering. I want to reduce the costs and risks of space exploration and travel. It’s incredible to think that I may achieve my ultimate goal of designing a spacecraft. Furthermore, I will grapple with society’s willingness to fund space exploration—an important factor to consider when designing air and spacecraft. Taking an interdisciplinary approach to engineering is crucial in building a case for the future of space travel.

The feeling you get once you have finished a project of that scale for the first time is indescribable. To hold your own research paper, see the data you compiled on JPL Horizons, and to see the elation on the faces of your friends, these are the things that gave me the strength and the confidence to study astrophysics with the goal of making the world a better place.

If you are currently a junior, do not miss a chance to apply to the “educational experience of a lifetime” in Colorado or New Mexico. SSP offers very generous financial aid, need-blind admission, and the application is free, but the experience is priceless. It’s so worth it!