One High School Student’s Study of Jupiter—and Beyond

High school senior Sarah Dudjak discusses her experience participating in the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope project

The Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) project is a one-of-a-kind educational program, allowing students to remotely operate a 34-meter radio telescope located in Southern California, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. In partnership with scientists around the world, students conduct research, studying planets, black holes and the Sun.

We sat down with Sarah Dudjak, senior at Newsome Senior High School in Florida, to discuss her experience participating in GAVRT and working with NASA scientists, lessons learned about Jupiter, her plans for the future and more.

From Star Atlas to Radio Telescope
Sarah Dudjak has participated in amateur astronomy for years. She clearly remembers when observing the mysteries of our cosmos first captured her interest. “I was in the library one day and I saw a star atlas with star maps. I would take that book and go outside at night and look at the constellations,” said Dudjak.

But this interest took to a whole new level when she joined the GAVRT project.

Dudjak first came across GAVRT through the STEM club at her high school. She was excited about the ability to use real NASA equipment. Since then, she’s regularly taken over the controls of GAVRT’s massive 34-meter radio telescope, in addition to connecting with scientists across NASA.

“Now, I really love radio telescopes,” said Dudjak. “Everything about it excites me.”

At first, the thought of taking over the controls of a radio telescope was daunting. As Dudjak said, “It’s part of NASA and the Deep Space Network—it’s very important.” However, Dudjak found that the program, led by GAVRT Lead Operator Nancy Kreuser-Jenkins, made the process clear and accessible.

Dudjak also found that across NASA, scientists were ready and willing to help. “There are so many people who are willing to talk to you,” Dudjak said. “Scientists are always communicating and asking questions. If they don’t know the answer to your question, they’ll go to the next person who might.”

GAVRT even had some unintended outcomes and inspirations. “I was sitting with a friend watching the movie Contact. I watched it as a kid, but when I rewatched it again, I understood all of the science jargon. All the way down to the Jansky factor. It was crazy.”

“Jodi Foster is amazing, and it’s so cool to relate to her in that way,” Dudjak added. “Can I be Jodi Foster?”

An Eye Towards Jupiter
One area of study stood out to Dudjak as she participated in GAVRT—Jupiter.

Jupiter Quest is an educational campaign managed by GAVRT, engaging students in authentic science by comparing the data they gather with data gathered by the Juno spacecraft orbiting the gas giant. GAVRT is an educational partner of the Juno mission.

In the Jupiter Quest science campaign, GAVRT students monitor the radio emission produced by energetic electrons which are trapped in Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field. Part of the value of these measurements is that they enhance the science of the Juno Microwave Radiometer (MWR) instrument on Juno, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016. MWR supplies close-up, high-quality data once per orbit, and GAVRT supplies more frequent data taken from a much greater distance.

This partnership also creates connections between Juno scientists and GAVRT students with Juno team members sometimes joining a class for a remote discussion, and inviting students to events such as watching the Juno launch from Kennedy Space Center or joining Juno scientists at JPL for Juno’s arrival at Jupiter.

When asked why Jupiter captured her attention, Dudjak had a clear answer: “It’s moons.” Out of all the Jovian moons, Io is Dudjak’s favorite. Dudjak even sports a pair of Io-inspired earrings. She was thrilled when she learned that the Juno mission was extended, providing an opportunity to fly by Ganymede, Europa and Io, three of the gas giant’s Galilean moons.

Participating in the program during COVID-19 presented challenges, but Dudjak made it work, often waking up at 6:00 am to collect data. While GAVRT has always worked remotely with teachers and students across the country, the pandemic has allowed for more one-on-one sessions with students. Dudjak was able to work closely with Kreuser-Jenkins to collect data.

“When COVID happened, I started collecting data on Jupiter three times a week for at least an hour in the morning. I was really persistent with it. I liked doing it so much, I just kept doing it, and now I’m using the data in a paper I’m writing,” said Dudjak.

Dudjak’s research has provided her a greater scientific understanding of the gas giant.

“I really like its radiation belt and magnetic field. I like that it’s similar to Earth’s Van Allen radiation belt,” Dudjak said when asked for key takeaways she learned. Van Allen radiation belts are zones of charged particles, most of which originate from solar wind, that are captured and held by a planet’s magnetosphere. Earth has two Van Allen radiation belts.

“It’s remarkable that while Earth is a rocky planet and Jupiter is a gas planet, they have really similar radiation patterns,” added Dudjak.
Charting Her Path Forward
GAVRT—and the connections to scientists she’s made through the program—has left a lasting impression on Dudjak. Short term, she wants to keep working with radio telescopes. Long term, Dudjak wants to join NASA missions exploring our solar system, specifically the Europa Clipper mission. Going forward, Dudjak will be studying geology.

When asked if she had advice for other students interested in astronomy or planetary science, Dudjak said, “It’s really important for teachers and students to know that this program is accessible. If you like it, go for it. All it takes is an email or for your teacher to reach out.”

“It might be daunting, but it’s so rewarding. Because I’m somewhere today I never thought I would be when I picked up that star atlas,” said Dudjak.

The GAVRT project is a partnership between NASA/JPL and the Lewis Center for Educational Research which strives to inspire and educate students through their active contribution to professional science.

To learn more about GAVRT, visit gavrt.lewiscenter.org.