For science, two Utah teachers take a trip out of this world

Dec 10, 2021, 6:18 PM
teachers NASA...
NASA's SOFIA observatory (NASA)

SALT LAKE CITY — To see their students succeed, some teachers will move heaven and earth.

Two educators from Utah’s Canyons School District — Clief Castleton from Hillcrest High and Milo Maughan from Corner Canyon High — were selected to attend a prestigious astrophysics teacher-training program that includes a flight into the stratosphere. 

They are now officially 2021 NASA Airborne Astronomy ambassadors.

Castleton and Maughn flew up into the Stratosphere on Tuesday night. The pair return to the skies on Friday to share what they observed with their Earthling students.

What on earth is the Stratosphere?

The Stratosphere extends around 31 miles (50 km) down to anywhere from 4 to 12 miles (6 to 20 km) above the Earth’s surface, according to the NOAA.

The average commercial passenger jetliner cruises at an altitude between 30,000 and 42,000 feet (9,000 – 13,000 meters). To put that in perspective, the peak of Mount Everest is 29,029 feet.

Castleton and Maughn flew aboard NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory, which is a modified 747 aircraft with a 100-inch telescope on board. 

Castleton said their flight Tuesday reached 42,000 feet above Earth.

The SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) observatory specializes in infrared astronomy. In October 2020, astronomers reported detecting molecular water on the sunlit surface of the moon by several independent spacecraft, including SOFIA.

The teachers’ flight launched after sunset. Flying through the stratosphere, Maughan said all he could see was a milky blackness.

But “SOFIA is an infrared telescope. It’s looking at the light that we can’t actually see with our eyes, but computer consoles are showing us what it was looking at,” he said.

What do the kids learn?

Dave asked: “What do you bring back to your kids in class and what is that conversation like?”

Maughn said he will teach his students the science behind infrared radiation. Also, on the syllabus, “magnetic fields in galaxies and nebulas,” which SOFIA was gazing upon Tuesday evening.

“How do we study those magnetic fields using the polarized light coming off of the nebula and galaxies?” Maughan asked rhetorically.

“How did you get chosen for this program?” Dave asked.

“Well, it was a competitive application process,” Castleton said. “It was pretty rigorous. We had to answer some essay questions.”

“Can I just say, It’s sweet justice that you had to write an essay,” Dave replied.


Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play. 

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For science, two Utah teachers take a trip out of this world