NASA scientists reach North Pole, classrooms

In what may be the ultimate in distance learning, a group of NASA scientists this month concluded a trip to the North Pole, where they used the Internet to send live video feed and chat with students around the world, creating the first Internet link to the remote region.

As part of the North Pole Project, scientists and engineers from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center traveled to Resolute Bay and Eureka, Canada, before heading to "the top of the world." They broadcast the first live World Wide Webcast from the North Pole and had students from preselected schools across the continental United States, Europe, Asia, South America and Australia participate in live Internet chat sessions.

NASA relied on three communications packages during the 13-day expedition that interfaced with the agency's F1 Tracking and Data Relay Satellite and established an Internet link. Each communications package provided a different connection speed. The satellite, launched in 1984, is available to the polar regions of the globe for four hours each day, although the North Pole team had only about a two-hour window because the antenna they were using was small.

"It really was the global Internet. We had the whole world online," said Michael Comberiate, team leader at NASA and nicknamed NASA Mike. "With the Internet and PCs, we were able to bring [our work] directly to the kids and get them interested in science and technology."

Despite the harsh weather conditions, the technology worked well, Comberiate said. When the NASA satellite was in position over the North Pole, it would point its 10-foot dish antenna toward the scientists, who would unload their generator-powered portable satellite ground station, set up an 18-inch pizza-pan antenna on a camera tripod and point it toward the satellite, which was only about 0.9 degrees above the horizon. The satellite provided an Internet connection via NASA's White Sands, N.M., ground station.

Meanwhile, the team created a mini production system by plugging a video camera into a Dell Computer Corp. laptop and using the camera to record the scientists as they conducted their experiments. Students were able to send live questions over the Internet that were received by the scientists on the computer.

Keeping the equipment - not to mention themselves - warm in temperatures hovering around minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit was a challenge, Comberiate said. For example, they had to use toe warmers, usually used by campers and skiiers, to keep the video camera warm.

Five polar orbiting satellites watched and photographed the locations where the field team worked. Two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and two Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites provided daily weather data to help find a suitable ice floe midway between the land's end and the North Pole on which to store fuel. That was necessary because the small airplane used to transport the scientists to the North Pole could not hold enough fuel for the entire trip.

The group also used an Iridium LLC satellite phone to reconfirm each day's scheduled events and itinerary.

Tom Albert, an education specialist at NASA, said the agency is always looking for ways to enhance its education programs. "The use of Internet as a tool is pretty powerful," he said.

An archive of the expedition's Webcasts and pictures is available at coolspace.gsfc.nasa.gov/northpole.

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