A Teen's Lunar Quest

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Operation E.A.G.L.E is not a military project. It is a scientific endeavor undertaken by 16-year-old Rebecca England, a sophomore at Demopolis High School in Alabama. While many teenage girls are focused on celebrity lifestyles, teen chat rooms and the latest trends in funky fashions, Rebecca has her eyes, well, on the moon.

Operation E.A.G.L.E. stands for Enhanced Alabama Gravitational Lunar Effect, a science project Rebecca developed for the International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, GA.

Although Rebecca didn’t beat out the competition at the science fair (there were 27 projects in the earth and planetary science category alone), her ambitious undertaking attracted the attention of several magazines and created a buzz across the exhibit hall floor.

The purpose of the project, said Rebecca, was to determine how far, if at all, the moon’s gravitational pull could be measured on the surface of the earth, particularly in her hometown of Demopolis.

"I got the idea one day when I was on the Internet looking for ideas for a science fair project on ocean tides," she said. "I came across the Operation E.A.G.L.E idea at random when I saw something about how the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth’s surface in Russia, or someplace, had a fluctuation pull of 18 inches. I thought it would be cool to measure the lunar gravitational pull in Demopolis, Alabama."

Since Demopolis is not far from vacation beaches, Rebecca hypothesized that the lunar pull would be 12 inches. To prove her hypothesis, she said, she had to find a way to measure the change in surface height by recording satellite data on four significant dates–full moon, new moon, apogee (the point in the orbit of, the moon that is the greatest distance from the center of the earth) and perigee (the point nearest the center of the earth).

To conduct the measurements, Rebecca went rummaging, so to speak, in her father’s tool box. Only, in this case, her father, Dan England, is a professional land surveyor who owns his own company, England Survey & Mapping in Demopolis. His tools weren’t hammers, saws and wire cutters, but high tech positioning equipment, including Topcon GB-1000 with charged batteries, Topcon PGA1 antenna, Topcon HiPer+ receiver with 8-inch rubber antenna and Topcon FC-100 data collector.

"My dad, who helped me a lot, let me use some of his equipment that he got from Allen Precision, a Topcon distributor in Atlanta," Rebecca said.

Rebecca explained what she did with all that technology. "I used some dual frequency GPS receivers that I placed over my control monument, (a concrete monument provided by the Alabama Department of Transportation that allowed her to use precise leveling techniques) and then collected data from satellites for a minimum of two hours on the predetermined dates I mentioned."

Accurate vertical height data was collected from the concrete monument and sent to the receivers using collection rates of 10 seconds, Rebecca said. A public service provider was used to analyze the data so she could get the results quickly. She said, "It would be there that surface height would noticeably increase or decrease."

When the analytical results came back, she said, she was dumbfounded. "The results did not seem to be significant enough to be legitimate. Nothing had changed at all­—nothing whatsoever. That threw a monkey wrench into the machine."

A chance conversation Rebecca had with a geology professor at the University of Alabama pinpointed what had derailed the experiment. The public service provider, as it turned out, had corrected the earth tide data. Said Rebecca, "Because of that I now had to find a method that could be used to put that original data back into the results."

That setback, she said, brought her to a momentary standstill, but it did make her "think a lot more. When I had to think a lot more, the project became a lot more fun."

In searching for a solution, Rebecca came across a German website "with a name so long I can’t pronounce it." That website, however, proved to be the road map that led her to a solution­—despite seemingly endless time spent in translating the information from German. As a result, she was able to put the data back in the analytical results.

When she restored the data, she said, "I ended up proving that, over a 10-day period, there was a surface height fluctuation of 9.12 inches."

Including the statistical mishap, the entire project took about three months. She pointed out that reproductions of the experiment had varying results, depending on the relative location to the ocean.

The teenager isn’t shy about jumping into the fray of competition. She entered her first science fair in the 6th grade with a project entitled, "Are There Really 24 Hours in a Day?" (There aren’t, she said.) She won first place in the state. She entered again in the 8th grade and won there, too.

She grew up in a family with a penchant for science fairs. Two older cousins (now in college) were winners and, right behind her, is her 12-year-old sister, Rachel, who does science fair projects as well.

But Rebecca’s interests are not limited to science. She plays center field on her high school softball team and, this year, enrolled in a drama class. She wound up singing and dancing in a musical.

In addition, Rebecca said, "I am a huge bookworm. I read a lot, and I love to write." And, yes, she writes well, too. She was recently selected as sophomore representative in a writer’s contest.

With two more years left in high school, Rebecca England has plenty of time to think about her future and decide what college to attend, she said.

In the meantime, however, she has been awarded a four-year scholarship to the University of Alabama at Huntsville. "Unless something better comes along," she said, "I will go there."

As for next year’s competition, Rebecca already has a game plan. She intends to use earth tides to predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Such a project, she said, will require her to thoroughly research previous catastrophes, lunar charts and other documentation.

She said she can’t wait to get to the next international competition—­this time in Reno, Nevada.

G. C. Skipper is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the construction, trucking, technical and travel industries.

The following notes from Rebecca’s daily journal reflect the tension, excitement and anticipation of a young girl from a small town and her adventures at the International Science and Engineering Fair held May 11­16, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Day 1 My family and I arrived at our hotel, a snazzy place downtown. We walked a good 45 minutes to get to our rooms. After finally getting settled, we started out to catch the high-speed train to the World Congress Center. As we were heading out the door of our hotel, a couple in matching yellow volunteer shirts stopped us and asked where we were going. When we told them, they offered us a ride in their car. Now I won’t lie. The whole ride there I was sitting in the car thinking, "Please don’t be evil kidnappers pretending to be a helpful, happy little couple." Believe it or not, they actually were a helpful, happy little couple.

Day 2 This afternoon we we
nt to the opening ceremony dinner at the Congress Center. We all wore matching red polo shirts and carried around large Alabama flags. Oddly enough, we were mistaken for Canadians, even though the Alabama flag has a great, big red X on it that looks nothing like a maple leaf.

Day 3 Judging is tomorrow! I’m nervous, but I’m not scared. I can handle this.

Day 4 I stood-and sat-and slept-by my project from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a couple of breaks in-between. One of my category judges interviewed me to be in a magazine from Indiana. I became friends with my "neighbors" and even pulled out my iPod to start a makeshift Karaoke party. We had a really fun time and I think the judges liked my project. Tomorrow, I have to do this again for the public. I’m excited.

Day 5 Tomorrow is the Grand Awards-and our last day. I don’t want to leave!

Day 6 Today is the last day. We packed everything up and left our bags in the hotel. We headed off to our final function, knowing we would all cry at the end. After the ceremony, I took down my project and headed back to Alabama. By the way, we did cry. A lot. Can’t wait for next year! Reno, Nevada, here we come! 

A 1.119Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE