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Feature - The sky's the limit

Feature - The sky’s the limit

Image courtesy Simon Langton Grammar School

Becky Parker, head of physics at the Simon Langton Grammar School in Kent, UK, is introducing her students to outer space.

In 2007, Becky organized a trip to CERN for her 16 to 18 year-old students. There, they were introduced to the Timepix computer chip, a sensitive light-detector used for medical imaging. Back in Britain, one of her students came up with the idea of using the chips to measure cosmic radiation. Parker’s response: “Brilliant!”

A Timepix chip has 65,536 pixels over a 2 cm² area. An event occurs when a particle strikes a pixel and is converted into an electrical signal, which can be measured. Her students wanted to use Timepix chips to detect particle type, energy and possibly, the directionality.

Consequently, her students entered and won a space experiment competition with their design made from adapting readouts of the chip. Their instrument, called LUCID (Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector) will be launched by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) in 2012.

How did her students adapt such a sophisticated device? Parker replied; “Students can think freely about problems. They thought out the specifications and these were developed with support from SSTL.”

LUCID is now operating on Earth and collecting data on cosmic particles hitting our atmosphere. Never imagining it would grow so big, Parker has signed-up ten schools in Kent to join a collaborative network for students called CERN@school.

Each school has a CERN@school kit, built by her students, comprising a USB, leads, laptop, guidance book and Timepix chip. The schools collect particle data every day, which is then automatically uploaded, by Pixelman software, to a server at Simon Langton Grammar School. Results are made available to students via the CERN@school website.   

Parker’s students at CERN. Image courtesy Langton Star Center


To infinity and beyond

Beyond the horizon, Parker’s school is in discussions on developing a Grids@school network to support the potentially large volume of data — terabytes of data each year — once LUCID is in space. They have just submitted a proposal to the UK Particle Physics Grid (GridPP) based at Queen Mary University, London, to develop a web application that will automate the correlation of data over a large geographic area and help students analyze characteristics of particle tracks.

She says that this is one of the few times anyone has tried to deliver grid-computing power directly to schools, and hopes to expand the project. The goal is to develop a common protocol and framework so that cosmic-ray data can be shared with schools worldwide. 

Parker has tried involving schools that have not had a strong tradition of physics. “It’s difficult; there was an academy in the area and their Headteacher felt that they had to concentrate on Government targets so they decided not be involved.” Conversely, Becky’s project has opened the floodgates for her pupils. One particular student, who was heavily involved with LUCID, won the ‘Young Scientist of the Year’. He subsequently met the Queen, attended a Commonwealth ‘Year of Science’ event and even visited NASA.

Listen to an audio clip here

—Adrian Giordani for iSGTW

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