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Tuesday, November 24, 1998 Published at 15:50 GMT


Mom, guess what I did at school today?

The students used images from the NSF's telescope in Chile

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

When the kids get home from school, do you ask them what they did? And how would you react if they said they had discovered a new planet orbiting the Sun - further away than the most distant known planet?

That is what a group of high school students in the United States have done thanks to the Internet and the US National Science Foundation.

[ image: 1998 FS144: Small but proud]
1998 FS144: Small but proud
The students at Northfield Mount Herman School in Northfield, Massachusetts, now have a picture of something new to hang on their wall.

The object they found is not exactly a new planet, but it is 100 miles across and it has never been seen before.

The students used images from the NSF's telescope in Chile. They were participating in NSF's Hands-On Universe Program.

Now officially called 1998 FS144, the new object is a member of the Kuiper belt. This is a region of small rocky bodies that orbit the Sun farther out than any known planet.

They are thought to be the leftovers from the origin of the solar system.

Only 72 such objects had previously been identified in the Kuiper Belt.

Exciting and inspiring

"This is a fantastic piece of science, of education, of discovery," said Hands-On Universe founder and astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

"The Northfield students' discovery has shown that all students, from a broad range of backgrounds, can make solid, exciting and inspiring scientific contributions."

"These students had the opportunity to operate like real astronomers," said NSF program officer Joseph Stewart.

Star images were obtained by the students via the Internet from the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Students then studied them visually as well as using special Hands-On Universe software until they spotted a tiny point of light that moved slightly against the background stars.

That high school students can discover a new body orbiting the Sun - something that few professional astronomers have done - shows just how much the Internet is changing the way science is done and the nature of science education.

The Internet and today's computers give the high school students - and indeed almost anyone - access to information, data and facilities that just a few years ago a professional astronomer could only dream of.

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