Lincoln-Way North teacher to fly high with NASA
By CAITLIN HILl SouthtownStar May 30, 2011 9:44PM
Physics teacher Margaret Piper points out variations in light curves for asteroids on a graph for students at Lincoln-Way North High School in Frankfort. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 7, 2011 3:16PM
Lincoln-Way North High School physics teacher Margaret Piper will take part in a research flight Wednesday after being one of just six teachers nationwide chosen to take part in NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy program, known for short as SOFIA.
The observatory is a highly modified Boeing 747 fitted with a 100-inch diameter telescope. The telescope analyzes infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets. It also looks at the chemistry of interstellar gases, the composition of comets, asteroids and planets and black holes at the center of galaxies.
Piper, 50, who lives in Orland Park and teaches physics, astronomy and meteorology at the Frankfort school, was stunned when she got the news she’d been picked to take part.
So were her husband and four children. Her daughter started calling her an “almost-naut.”
“I had been telling my students I’m going up with SOFIA some day,” Piper said. “When I found out I was going this year, I didn’t believe it at first.”
The aircraft flies at up to 45,000 feet to get above 99 percent of the water vapor and other gases in the atmosphere that would block infrared light. Piper doesn’t know what her tasks aboard the SOFIA flight will be yet. She’s being briefed today.
Piper suspects the flight will take place over the Pacific Ocean and last up to 10 hours.
The flight is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But Piper said she expects the best part will be when she gets back to the classroom.
Piper plans to talk with her students about things such as why it’s necessary to fly that high and why NASA uses an airplane rather than the Hubble Space Telescope for the research. For one, doing research aboard the jet is much cheaper.
Piper said she sees her experience as one more connection for her students — a way to spark their interest and help them understand space sciences better.
“I’ve always told them that during their lifetime they or someone they know will go to the moon or land on Mars,” she said. “It’s not crazy talk.”
Piper was a metallurgical and materials engineer before going into teaching. She has also become an amateur astronomer, developing a love of astronomy with the help of the people at the Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago.
“The kids get to learn from me, and I get to learn from people who do world-class work,” she said. “It’s amazing.”