Welcome to Preflight Training

If you need to learn how to use a new tool or brush up on some basics before launching off into a project or starting an Expedition, this is the place to be. The practice sessions are broken down into small chunks so you can pick just the skills and tools you need for your Voyage. Unlike the rest of the activities you will find in Voyages, they are not inquiry-based.
Pre-flight training won’t tell you everything there is to know about a topic. These activities are built to get you using tools and concepts quickly. If you need an electric drill to build a bookshelf, you probably want to know where the power switch is and how attach a bit. You don’t need to know how the drill is put together or the history of drills. That is our philosophy here in Pre-Flight training; we’ll give you what you need to know so you don’t crash on take-off.


Locating Objects

Locating objects on the dome of the sky in the SDSS database or within a SkyServer image is important to our travels here in Voyages. Only topics specific to the SDSS database are covered here, but don’t forget that you are encouraged to contact us, if you would like to see a topic added.


Driving the SDSS Telescope – Understanding Right Ascension and Declination provides students with an overview of lines of right ascension and declination, how they are measured, and how the decimal degrees (specialized representation of RA and Dec in the SDSS) are calculated by computers.

This activity is a useful resource for reviewing RA and Dec in the form of decimal degrees used by the SDSS.

If your students have no prior experience with RA and Dec, consider Launch – My Special Place in the Database or Launch – Constellations as part of the experience.

Structured Query Language introduces students to the fact that massive amounts of data can be stored on computers in an organized manner. This data can be searched in variety of ways using a simple language called SQL (structured query language). The activity uses the first two lines of code – the Select and From lines – to demonstrate how a query functions.

This activity is recommended if you come across the concept of querying a database but it is not part of the main lesson.

Other activities that teach SQL as part of the lesson are Launch – Galaxies and Expedition – Galaxy Color.

Asteroids are not targets of the SDSS. During the long exposures times used to capture faint galaxies and quasars, many asteroids are recorded as colored streaks or a series of colored dots on the image. In this Preflight, students learn how to identify asteroids in SDSS images and how the engineering goals of the telescope (target faint objects) result in clear images of stars and galaxies and streaked images of asteroids.

Although the aim of this activity is to help students identify asteroids and moving objects in SDSS images, you can use it as a starting place for a discussion about how the SDSS telescope was designed by engineers to meet a particular goal. The engineering goal of the SDSS camera and telescope is to capture images and spectra of very faint and distant objects over large portions of the sky.

If you are interested in continuing to explore the nature of the data captured by the SDSS, Launch – What is SkyServer provides the details.

Artifacts provides more examples of objects captured by the SDSS telescope and camera that were not the intended targets of the system. A discussion of the design characteristics the system would have needed to successfully image these objects would help students think about the engineering involved in scientific discoveries.

The nature and behavior of light is fascinating and complex. Here in the Preflight Light section of Voyages we offer you the SDSS twist on some key topics. Remember, we are eager to hear from you. 


Spectra takes a detailed look at an SDSS spectrum graph. Students are provided with information about the types of data recorded on the graphs, the units used, and how to interpret the information.

The information on the page is very dense; a great number of topics related to spectra are covered. As in all Preflight trainings, students are being told the information that is known about spectra. If you would like your students to uncover and interpret these patterns for themselves, we recommend Launch – Stellar Spectra for exploring the nature of the continuum curve, Launch – Stars as Blackbodies for interpreting temperature, and Launch – Redshift for a closer look at absorption and emission lines.

Redshift covers the very basics about what a redshift is and a generalized description of how it is measured on an SDSS spectrum graph.

For more about redshift, Launch – Redshift provides a detailed investigation of how spectral lines are identified and used to calculate redshift.

Filters explains the function of a filter and how it does the job of blocking some colors of light. As with all Preflight trainings, information is presented in the context of the SDSS; no other filters or systems are discussed. The wavelength nature of light is introduced as it is essential to understanding the “colors” that we do not see and how filters function.

This Preflight activity does not attempt to teach everything about the electromagnetic spectrum or the nature of light. There are many supporting classroom experiences that accomplish this effectively. Our aim here is to provide an understanding of light and filters within the SDSS that serves as a context for further experiences such as Launch – Star Color.

Magnitude is here to provide a quick reference when students need a review or the basic overview of the magnitude scale in astronomy. This training provides the historical background for the development of the scale and numerous examples to ground this unit-less measurement to familiar objects like the moon.

Try Launch – Star Color if you would like you students to uncover the nature of the magnitude scale on their own. Preflight – Magnitude is also a good review before Expeditions.

Magnitude Calculation offers a short demonstration about how magnitude (a unit-less measurement) is derived by comparing the energetic output of the star to that of the star Vega.

Some student questions require a more in- depth understanding of the nature of magnitude measurements. Magnitude itself is a useful demonstration of the different base operations of the log scale.

Capturing and Recording Light
The technology and engineering that go into the SDSS are extensive. We offer some of the highlights here. Understanding how the data are captured and displayed in SkyServer will help every other activity you encounter make more sense. Let us know what you would like to know more about; you may spark a new Preflight page!


The SDSS Telescope has many unique design features as well as much in common with other large research telescopes. This Preflight training provides background information about the location, design, and dimensions of the telescope.

This Preflight could be used along with Preflight – SDSS Instruments and Preflight – Types of Data to explore how the science goals of the survey were met in the engineering design process. Questions such as – What features and functions did engineers need to design into the SDSS telescope/camera system to capture the different types of SDSS data? – are accessible through these readings.

A video introduction to this activity in Spanish and American Sign language is available HERE. Voyages is eager for feedback about how teachers are using these videos at voyage@sdss.org

SDSS Instruments reviews the function of a telescope and introduces the idea that a way to record the information (light) is necessary if your goal is to share images and data. The CCD camera and spectrograph are the two main instruments that work with the SDSS telescope to do those jobs. The reading explains how each instrument is designed to produce different outcomes.

We recommend that no matter what activity you do with students, you always reinforce the telescope/camera or telescope/CCD as a system that works together to achieve a goal. This Preflight is always available as a reminder. Students can reference this section anytime they are unclear about the role of each instrument in gathering data.

Video resources:
Plugging the Plates
SDSS at Night

Types of Data emphasizes the two primary data types recorded by the SDSS, photometric and spectroscopic. The reading shows how each type of data is accessed through the Navigate tool in SkyServer and provides an overview of how to locate more detailed descriptions through the QuickLook tool.

Although the telescope/camera or telescope/spectrograph system is mentioned in this Preflight, the emphasis here is on the data output and where the data are located.

If want to know more, we highly recommend these resources for further information about basic concepts in astronomy: