Center for Astrophysics

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Project ATLAS Homepage

An Introduction to Project ATLAS

The Global Positioning System (GPS)

Using GPS in the Classroom

Experiment 1: The Global Mapping Experiment

Mapping Your Community

Experiment 2: The Community Mapping Experiment

ATLAS Wrap-up and Suggested Activities

ATLAS Worksheets

Introduction to Project ATLAS

Overview of ATLAS Objectives

Project ATLAS (Assisted Transnational Learning using Artificial Satellites) is a set of scientific activities in which students from around the world participate simultaneously. The activities involve planned experiments during which students receive radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting the Earth and then determine their positions (latitude and longitude). The students participate in some aspects of the experiment design. Information is shared among the students in near real time using the Internet. The overall goal of ATLAS is to demonstrate to students that Science can be a creative multicultural experience, thereby increasing their interest in scientific subjects and in Science as a potentially rewarding career.

Project Goals

  • Use GPS and the topic of artificial satellites to interest students in Science as a human activity
  • Provide teachers with information and experiences that will help them empower students to make better informed career choices
  • Foster international collaborations by enabling students from different countries and cultures to communicate directly, and demonstrate how Science plays an important role in forming such collaborations
  • Demonstrate to students that the Internet is a powerful tool in scientific research and in global communication

Student Outcomes

Participation in Project ATLAS will enable a student to:

  • Realize that Science is a fun and creative activity that he or she might choose as a life’s career
  • Increase his or her awareness that Science is a cooperative activity involving a variety of people
  • Increase his or her awareness of the relevance of Science to more traditional "people-oriented" subjects like social studies and language, and the relevance of these subjects to Science
  • Obtain an appreciation of the Internet as a tool for global communication

How Project ATLAS Creates International Collaborations of Students

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a constellation of 24 artificial satellites (plus several spare satellites) orbiting the Earth. GPS was designed by the United States Department of Defense (USDoD) in the 1970’s. Like Earth’s largest and only natural satellite, the Moon, each GPS satellite is not always visible from the Earth. Each GPS satellite rises and sets according to its particular orbit. However, the GPS satellites are spread out in their different orbits so that several are always visible from any point on the Earth.

Each GPS satellite broadcasts towards the Earth a unique radio signal. Each signal contains information regarding the location of the GPS satellites, and the exact instant at which the signal was sent. On the Earth, specially built GPS receivers are used to intercept and interpret the transmitted GPS radio signals from several GPS satellites simultaneously. The GPS receiver uses the timing information in the GPS signal to calculate the range, or distance, from the receiver to each GPS satellite. The GPS receiver also contains a built-in computer that solves the complex mathematical equations that provide a solution to the GPS receiver’s position on the Earth, that is, the latitude and longitude.

Several decades ago, radio receiver and computer technologies were quite different than they are today. Then, a GPS receiver and its computer would easily take up one wall of a room, and require a great amount of electrical power. As one might imagine, these GPS receivers were very expensive, several hundred thousand U.S. dollars. Today, a complete GPS receiver with a powerful computer chip inside costs much less than one thousand U.S. dollars, measures less than 15 cm (6 inches) in length, weighs 270 g (9.5 oz.) and uses ordinary batteries. With a press of a button, the GPS receiver powers up, begins to lock-on (i.e., tune in) to the GPS satellite broadcast, and reports its position on the Earth! These are the GPS receivers we’ll use during Project ATLAS.

In experimental geophysics, a network of GPS receivers is deployed at many sites over a large area. The experiment must be coordinated so that all measurements are made at once. International teams of investigators often participate in these experiments. If the team of investigators and the geographic area are large enough, many of the investigators do not know the others or where the other sites in the network are located. To participate in such an experiment is one of the most rewarding experiences for a scientist, because scientists, like other people, enjoy a creative challenge and the "winning" feeling of successfully completing that challenge. Not only is the experiment contributing to our knowledge and scientific understanding of the Earth, but the collaborations foster new friendships that are rich in interesting intercultural exchanges. This is the type of experience we’ll provide in Project ATLAS.

Your School and Project ATLAS

ATLAS Teacher Team and School Coordinator

Each school will have one ATLAS School Coordinator, who will be the primary contact with the ATLAS team at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The ATLAS School Coordinator will lead the ATLAS Teacher Team of one or more teachers and coordinate ATLAS activities. The ATLAS Teacher Team may consist of only one teacher (and this one teacher may be the ATLAS School Coordinator). However, we encourage the ATLAS Teacher Team to be composed of teachers from several different disciplines, such as science, mathematics, social studies, and foreign languages.

The exact duties of the ATLAS School Coordinator and the ATLAS Teacher Team are described in detail below.

Scheduling ATLAS Activities

Because the ATLAS activities are coordinated with schools around the world, the activities have schedules that must be followed to an approximate degree. For example, the Global Mapping Experiment (see "Overview of ATLAS Activities") should take place as close in time to your local noon as possible on the specified day. The ATLAS School Coordinator must choose a time for this activity that meets this criterion while taking into account practical considerations that may exist at the Coordinator’s school.

We have designed ATLAS with the philosophy that the required curriculum should be as unintrusive as possible. This flexibility requires that the ATLAS School Coordinator and Teacher Team make certain scheduling decisions, described below. An overview of the ATLAS schedule is described below in "Overview of ATLAS Activities."

The SAO Scientist Observer

This year (1999) is the pilot year for Project ATLAS. In order to provide support for unforeseen problems and to help assess the ATLAS curriculum and implementation, a scientist observer from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) will attend the ATLAS activities. The SAO Scientist Observer will mainly observe your class. He or she will not interfere with the Teacher Team and will not lead or participate in any of the activities except as an observer or except when absolutely necessary.

ATLAS Equipment and Materials

During the pilot year of Project ATLAS, SAO will provide all equipment and materials required, except ordinary routine items such as pencils, pens, and paper. SAO will arrange for GPS receivers to be loaned to schools. These GPS receivers are owned by the University NAVSTAR Consortium (UNAVCO) Facility in Boulder, Colorado, USA. This facility supports GPS researchers in the Earth sciences working in all areas of the world.

Overview of ATLAS Activities

ATLAS activities are designed to meet the ATLAS goals in such a way that the student’s experiences reveal to them the multicultural and international aspects of scientific study in today’s world. The activities are divided into three parts:

    1. Classroom activities that present background materials that the students require and provide a forum for student input and examination of data
    2. The Global Mapping Experiment, in which students determine their position on the Earth and exchange this information with their ATLAS collaborators around the globe
    3. The Community Mapping Experiment, in which students present their communities to ATLAS collaborators by measuring the locations of important landmarks.



Class- hours

May 3, 1999

SAO Observers arrive and meet with ATLAS School Coordinator and Teacher Team


May 3

Classroom activity: Students complete pre-survey


May 4

Classroom activity: "The Global Positioning System"


May 5

Classroom activity: "Using GPS in the Classroom"


May 6

Global Mapping Experiment:Observations


May 7

Global Mapping Experiment:Plotting Results


May 10

Classroom activity: "Mapping Your Community"


May 11-25

Community Mapping Experiment


May 28

Classroom activity: "ATLAS wrap-up"


Table 1. Overview of ATLAS schedule for Spring 1999.

In Table 1, we present an overview of the ATLAS schedule for 1999. This overview is intended to describe in general terms the flow of Project ATLAS and to help guide the ATLAS School Coordinator and ATLAS Teacher Team in planning. Table 1 indicates the approximate class hours that each activity will require. For planning purposes, we have assumed that one class hour equals 40 minutes of instructional time.

Of the activities listed in Table 1, only the Global Mapping Experiment must be performed on the day listed. The other activities have some time requirements, but they are more relaxed.

Space Geodesy Group
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