Will Gaia discover planets that humans would be able to live on? What is a quasar? How many people are actually working on the mission at the moment? These are just some of the varied questions that school students put to some of ESA’s Gaia experts during the Gaia Live in School Event on 25 March 2014.
More than 2000 students, mainly aged 10-12 years old, from 34 schools in 10 European countries followed a live webcast from the Gaia mission planning room at ESOC, ESA’s spacecraft operations centre in Germany. This special webcast gave students a unique opportunity to see behind the scenes of the Gaia mission, with Timo Prusti, the Gaia Project Scientist, and David Milligan, the Gaia Spacecraft Operations Manager answering many of the students’ questions.
Each school participating in the Gaia Live event was linked to a leading research institute in its area. On the day of the event, two postgraduate students, the ‘Gaia Explainers’ from each institute, went into the schools to deliver lively and interactive presentations about Gaia. Hands-on demonstrations and videos introduced the school students to the mission, and to key concepts such as the Solar System, the Milky Way and parallax, to aid their understanding of the science of Gaia before linking up to the live webcast.
In the first part of the live webcast students watched David Milligan describe Gaia’s journey to its orbit about L2, a gravitational equilibrium point that is 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, how the spacecraft is operated, and how data are sent to and from the satellite. Timo Prusti continued by explaining why it is important to make a 3D map of the Milky Way, how Gaia will help to reveal our Galaxy’s history, and the other exciting discoveries Gaia will make.
Timo and David then answered a range of excellent questions from the schools, which had been submitted in advance of the event. The webcast further stimulated the students’ curiosity, and even more questions for the experts came streaming in from all 34 schools to ESOC by web chat – as many as possible were answered live on air.
Following the webcast, the postgraduate students completed their sessions in the schools with another question and answer session, as well as further demonstrations and activities.
In preparation for the event the postgraduate students participated in an intensive training course, held at ESTEC, where they explored how to present science concepts to groups of school students. Working together with the teachers involved at each school, the local event programmes were adapted to ensure that they were relevant for each participating school audience. The enthusiasm of the teachers helped ensure the success of the event at each school.
The event was organised as a partnership between the Gaia Research for European Astronomy Training Network (GREAT) and ESA, with many of the ‘Gaia Explainers’ being students in the GREAT Initial Training Network.
Watch the replay of the ESOC part of the Gaia Live event here.
For more information about the event and the schools taking part, visit the GREAT event web page.
Authors: Rebecca Barnes (HE Space Operations for ESA), Nicholas Walton (Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge)