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Memories

1998 Starshine Satellite Project

Project Starshine is an educational project to have school pupils design, build and observe a satellite to monitor the effects of solar activity on the earth's upper atmosphere.

The project is the brainchild of American science teacher Gil Moore, who has spent considerable time fund-raising and planning. The satellite will be a sphere about 50 cm in diameter, covered with 877 flat mirrors, each 1" in diameter. When launched from the space shuttle next year, the satellite will be visible in morning and evening twilight as the mirrors reflect sunlight to observers on the ground.

As the satellite will be spinning once per minute, observers will see a series of flashes as different mirrors catch the sun. Gil sent out over a thousand carefully prepared mirror kits to schools around the world.

Each kit contained two flat 1" aluminium mirror blanks and the materials required to grind and polish them into reasonably flat mirrors. The better of the two finished mirrors was for use on the satellite, while the other was to be kept at the school as a souvenir. The mirrors, once ground by the students, were sent back to Gil for final testing and mounting on the Starshine satellite, which will be launched from the Space Shuttle next year. The satellite will be covered in nearly a thousand mirrors, designed to reflect sunlight to the observers on the ground when the satellite is high above them at dusk or dawn.

The second phase of the project will involve school groups observing the position as it passes across the sky. The observations sent in to Gil should yield data on the atmospheric drag the satellite is experiencing, and hence how the atmosphere is behaving under the influence of the solar wind - the stream of charge particles emanating from the sun.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr Francis Podmore of the UZ Physics Dept, Gil kindly sent three of the mirror kits to Zimbabwe and agreed to extend the deadline to allow us time to complete the mirrors. Francis distributed a kit to Prince Edward, where Mike Begbie teaches the only O level astronomy course in Africa, and one to Peterhouse. He finished one of the remaining mirrors himself and had Gateway High's science club finish the other.

The Fifth Form top set physics class took a week to carefully grind and polish the mirrors. Great care had to be taken at all times to avoid dust and emery grit from ruining the delicate surfaces. The process was fun and our two mirrors were the first of the Zimbabwe consignment to be completed.

The three best mirrors, one from each school, have been received by Gil Moore and have passed the quality test (flat to within 10 wavelengths of light; approx. 5 microns).

This list of participants, printed on a Peterhouse letterhead, has been sent with our mirror. All such lists will be scanned onto a CD-ROM and kept in an archive. A copy of the CD-ROM will be placed in the satellite, although no one will ever read it - the satellite will eventually encounter sufficient resistance from the atmosphere that it will lose kinetic energy to friction and re-enter, burning up as it does so.

The Peterhouse Project Starshine Team: Nicholas Croukamp, Gary Gargan, Perry Huck, Farai Madzima, Trevor Manokore, Yvonne Masiku, Leo Mhlanga, Bryan Mukandi, Saul Shame, Gordon Simpson. Teacher Simon Walsh, Hama Zamchiya

If the project is successful, there are plans to make it an annual event for the next ten years, in order to monitor the 11 year sunspot cycle in its entirety.

Simon Walsh

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