Summer Science Program

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Summer Science Program, Inc.
The Summer Science Program
Founded 1959
Founder Thacher School and Caltech
Type 501(c)(3) Educational Charity
Focus Astronomy education
Area served
c. 2,000
1 year-round, about 15 for six weeks
c. 50
Slogan "The Educational Experience of a Lifetime"... since 1959
Mission To operate a non-credit, research-based enrichment program for academically gifted high school students, designed to accelerate the intellectual and social development of tomorrow’s leaders, inspiring them to realize their individual potentials in the sciences and other professions.[1]

The Summer Science Program (SSP) is an academic summer program where high school students experience college-level education and do research in celestial mechanics by studying the orbits of asteroids. The program was established in 1959 at The Thacher School in Ojai, California, and now takes place at two locations: New Mexico Tech in Socorro, New Mexico, and University of Colorado, Boulder in Boulder, Colorado.


The Summer Science Program is a residential course with students staying at either the campus of University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado or the campus of New Mexico Tech in Socorro, New Mexico. The program at each campus serves 36 students with 8 staff. The curriculum is very similar at the two campuses, but the individual academic directors can vary the curriculum at each campus somewhat. The program also includes many extracurricular activities, field trips (scientific and recreational), and guest lectures from working scientists and other professionals.[2] Guest speakers have included Maarten Schmidt, who has done pioneering work in quasars; Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics; James Randi, magician and debunker of pseudoscience; Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development; and Paul MacCready, creator of the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross.

The students (broken into teams consisting of three students on each team) participate in a 5.5-week curriculum where they attend daytime lectures on astronomy, physics, spherical trigonometry, calculus, and software development. The other part of the course happens at night with hands-on work imaging the asteroids they are to study with telescopes made available by the program. From these images, students measure the asteroids' positions and calculate their orbit.

Primarily juniors (rising seniors) who are taking calculus or pre-calculus are admitted, but a few sophomores are selected each year. Participants are chosen based on applications they submit. The cost of the program per student is over $7000, but half of that is paid for by donors. The maximum students pay (as of 2015) is $4,500 including room & board, of which some or all can be covered by further needs-based financial aid.[3]

In 1991, the National Academies' Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications observed that "All participants go on to college. About 37 percent of the pre-1985 graduates are now working in science and medicine, and 34 percent in engineering, mathematics, and computer science (including the founder of Lotus Development Corporation)."[4]


In 1959, less than two years after the launch of Sputnik 1 marking the start of the Space Race, officials at Thacher and Caltech were concerned that the country's top high school students were not being adequately informed and inspired about careers in the physical sciences. They decided to create an intense summer program to challenge such students and inspire them with a taste of "real science." They received assistance from a number of leading California colleges, including Caltech, UCLA, Claremont Colleges, and Stanford. Financial support came from Hughes Aircraft.[2][5]

SSP was taught in its first year by Dr. Paul Routly. He continued with SSP until 1962. In 1960, Dr. George Abell joined the program for his first of more than 20 summers at SSP.[2]

The first year, SSP had 26 students. The students used data from the "Russian ephemeris" (Ephemyeredi Mahlikh Planyet) to find asteroids to photograph, measured the positions, and submitted the data to the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The students were excited to find that when they calculated the orbit of 9 Metis, their data resulted in a significant correction to the Russian ephemeris.[5]

A significant threat to the continuation of SSP came in 1999. The Thacher School decided to make significant changes to its entire program, and SSP no longer fit. 1999 would be the last year the program was held at Thacher.[2] A group of SSP alumni saved the program in the form of a new non-profit corporation, Summer Science Program, Inc. They found funding, largely from the alumni community; and they found a new site for the program. Beginning in 2000, SSP was held at the Happy Valley School, located just across the Ojai Valley from The Thacher School. In 2007, Happy Valley School was renamed Besant Hill School.[2]

With the alumni rescue complete, they soon began looking to expand the program. In 2003 a second campus opened at New Mexico Tech in Socorro with the support of New Mexico Tech, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, and others.[6] In 2010, the California campus moved to Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Beginning in 2015, the California campus is replaced by one at University of Colorado Boulder.[7]

In 2008, the small group of alumni who engineered the rescue of the program planned for new generations to take over. They converted Summer Science Program, Inc., from a non-profit corporation run by themselves into a membership organization. About 2000 alumni and former faculty and staff make up the membership. A Board of Trustees is elected by the members at an Annual Meeting that takes place each year in conjunction with one of the alumni reunions at each campus.

Astronomical Work[edit]

Example of an astrographic plate taken at SSP, in this case showing 39 Laetitia (circled in blue). Reference stars are also circled.

For the first 50 years of the program, students took photographic images of main-belt asteroids (between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). Starting in 2009 students took digital images of (much fainter) near-Earth asteroids (inside the orbit of Mars). The process of orbit determination is conceptually the same in both cases. First students take a series of images of asteroids. After identifying the asteroid, its position on the image relative to known stars is carefully calculated. That relative position is then used to determine the position of the asteroid in celestial coordinates (right ascension and declination) at the exact time the image was taken. The series of positions as the asteroid moves across the sky allows the student to fit an approximate orbit to the asteroid. The measured asteroid coordinates (not the calculated orbital elements) are submitted to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Over the decades SSP students have done their orbit determination calculations on mechanical calculators (1960s), then electronic calculators (1970s), then "mini-computers" (1980s), then personal computers (1990s and 2000s). In recent years they write their orbit determination programs in the Python programming language, employing the Gaussian method.

List of alumni[edit]

The following is a list of notable alumni of the Summer Science Program.


  1. ^ The SSP Scholarship Endowment Fund (PDF)
  2. ^ a b c d e Furutani, Tracy (March 2001). "Asteroids, Teenagers, and Real Science" (PDF). Sky & Telescope. Retrieved December 24, 2010. 
  3. ^ - Summer Science Program, Admissions - Program Fee and Financial Aid
  4. ^ "Benefits to the Nation from Astronomy and Astrophysics". National Academies' Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Application. 1991. p. 303. 
  5. ^ a b "Students Spot 350,000-Mile Russ Error". Star-Free Press. 1959. Retrieved February 9, 2012. 
  6. ^ "New Mexico Tech News". New Mexico Tech. June 17, 2004. Retrieved November 29, 2010. 
  7. ^ "Top teens to track potential 'killer asteroids' during Summer Science Program at CU-Boulder". Metro Denver. October 20, 2014. Retrieved June 27, 2015. 

External links[edit]