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Denny High pupils on a deep space mission

Pupils from Denny High School's STEM club

The Open University (OU) has given pupils from Denny High, near Falkirk, the control codes for two of the world’s most advanced telescopes.

The secondary school pupils are helping The OU develop a new, open access astronomy course by testing bespoke software that will let people around the world order the Canary Island-based telescope to take pictures of deep space.

Dr Alan Cayless, an astronomer and staff tutor at The OU, commissioned the youngsters to help him test the technology on the PIRATE and COAST telescopes, which are based on the island of Tenerife.

He introduced the pupils (some are pictured above left, and below right), all members of Denny High’s busy STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) club, to the Messier Catalogue of Deep Space Objects, compiled by Charles Messier in the late 1760s.

The catalogue is a set of 110 astronomical ‘objects’, including galaxies, supernova remnants and star clusters. The Denny High pupils simply had to go through the catalogue, pick the deep space objects most interesting to them, place an order with the telescope and wait.

Pupils from Denny High School's Stem clubDr Cayless said: “These pupils have the universe at their fingertips, and it has been incredible to see their interest in space and selecting objects to be photographed.

“Once they place an order, the telescope positions to the required coordinates and, weather permitting, will return a spectacular image within days.

“The pupils are learning about astronomy while helping The OU develop an open access course that will open up the COAST telescope, and the deep space objects it can capture, to people around the world. I am extremely grateful to these budding scientists for their input and feedback.”

Kathryn Sharp, the teacher who runs the Denny High STEM Club, said: “We have around 30 members of our STEM club and their response to the Open University project has been incredible.

“They’ve been going through the Messier catalogue, working out what might be visible at this time of year, noting positions in the sky and, from a classroom in central Scotland, have commandeered a telescope on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries.

“Projects like this bring science to life for our pupils, which is so important. STEM is a real focus for us at Denny High School and we’re constantly seeking new partnerships and collaborations to show our pupils where STEM subjects can take them. In this case it’s infinity and beyond!”

Image of a whirlpool galaxyDr Cayless intends to have the open access course available in the autumn, and to set up a subscription access to the telescope software so that more people can direct the telescope to the object of their choice.

Dr Cayless said: “There are lots of images available of the night sky, but there is something wonderful about choosing which cluster of stars you would like to see close up and having a telescope turn round and take a picture for you.

“These are some of the most beautiful structures ever created, glowing in all different colours and sizes. Messier developed his catalogue so that comet hunters wouldn’t be distracted by the other objects in deep space, but I suspect these beautiful objects still held their attention for a few moments at least.”

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