Archive for Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Comet catches eye of science students

January 17, 2007

Tonganoxie ninth-grade teacher Jake Gontesky practices what he teaches.

Currently, Gontesky, who teaches earth science to 160 students, is guiding his students through a session on astronomy.

A couple of weeks ago he learned that a comet- Comet McNaught -- could be seen with the naked eye in the evening sky.

The comet, discovered in August, was the brightest comet in 40 years. But starting today it's going be traveling behind the sun, and no longer will be visible from the northern hemisphere.

However, residents of the southern hemisphere later this week will be able to see an even brighter and larger comet once it emerges from behind the sun. From the southern hemisphere it will be visible during the day as well as night.

Comet McNaught's presence added to his students' interest, Gontesky said.

He started by teaching them how to use a sky map.

"It's just like a road map, but instead of a map on the ground, it's a map of the sky that shows where all the constellations are," Gontesky said.

He then pointed on the map where the comet would be visible.

"They took the maps home with them so they could try to find the comet on their own," Gontesky said.

¢ Comet McNaught (C/2006 P1) was discovered in August 2006 by astronomer R.H. McNaught who has more than 30 comets to his name.¢ A comet is a cobbled-together mix of ice, dust and gas that orbits the sun in a highly elliptical path. As the comet travels closer to the sun, the sun's energy warms the comet, causing some of the ice to sublimate away. ¢ The comet and its ion tail have become brighter and more visible as the comet travels closer to the sun. ¢ This ion tail is composed of charged particles that are streaming off the comet. The tail points directly opposite from the sun (not necessarily behind the comet's direction of motion) because the sun's solar wind pushes those charged particles away as the comet is vaporized by the sun's energy. As the comet traveled closer to the sun each day this week, the tail grew longer and brighter.¢ For more information, here's the Web site of Tonganoxie High School earth science teacher Jake Gontesky: http://mammatus.wordpress.com/ -- Source: Jake Gontesky

The 29-year-old Gontesky, who grew up in a small town in South Dakota, majored in meteorology and minored in astronomy in college. He later decided to go into teaching and returned to college to obtain a teaching degree.

Another interest -- photography -- goes hand in hand with Gontesky's interest in meteorology and astronomy.

He's even established two Web sites, one for his students to use for research and class assignments, and another that he devotes to meteorology and astronomy.

For his students, Gontesky said, this is their introduction to astronomy.

"They have not had any serious astronomy -- only just little bits in their elementary school classes," Gontesky said. "So far they've loved it because it's been something interesting that they can do on their own outside of classes."

The comet's presence helped.

"The students asked so many questions," Gontesky said. "They were very involved in wanting to know where to find it, how to look for it."

And, this is the type of interest that can last a lifetime.

"It's one thing to talk about comets, but it's like being able to teach it on another level when they're able to go out and view it on their own," Gontesky said. "It makes the teaching of this stuff a lot more enjoyable -- to see the interest that they have."

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