Thacher Students Present at the American Astronomical Society Conference

Seniors, Alejandro and Yao shared their findings on the erratic dimming events of Tabby’s star.
This past summer, two Thacher rising seniors, Alejandro Wilcox and Yao Yin, presented a poster Multiband Lightcurve of Tabby’s Star: Observations and Modeling, at the 232nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Denver, Colorado. The presentation was based on findings from their class, Advanced Topics in Astronomy Research, taught by Dr. Jonathan Swift. The students were also invited to participate in a press conference held at the conference.

The two were part of an international group of more than 100 astronomers and citizen scientists who are studying the unusual dimming activity of Tabby’s Star. This celestial body is also known as KIC 8462852 or Boyaijian’s star (named for Tabetha Boyajian, the astronomer who first discovered its irregular dimming behavior). Boyajian initially noted large and erratic dimming events as captured by the Kepler Space telescope, some of which caused a 20 percent decrement in light emanating from the star. Since then, independent teams of scientists have observed this star displaying other bizarre behavior such as a steady dimming that has been decreasing the apparent brightness of the star by about 1 percent every 10 years for the past century. The work of the Thacher students was designed to characterize the nature of the dust that causes the short timescale dips. Yao and Alejandro determined that the two types of dips have separate causes. "We can confidently say we believe the obscuring material from [Tabby's] star is consistent with interstellar-medium dust," Yao explained during the presentation.

Dr.Swift, who co-authored the work, accompanied the students to the conference. He shared, “I was unbelievably impressed with Alejandro and Yao’s poise, clarity, and accuracy during the press conference. They also handled the Q&A session very well. They were fielding questions by the BBC, CNN, Sky and Telescope, Nature, etc. Pretty exciting stuff!” This past August, the three met Dr. Boyaijian at the Las Cumbres Observatory open house in Goleta, California. She expressed her gratitude for the Thacher astronomy program’s support of her research and presented the students with handmade ceramics as a token of her appreciation. (See the photo: Alejandro, Yao and Dr. Boyaijian are on the left.) Dr. Boyaijian has published the first official follow-up paper, and included the Thacher data.

While Yao has moved on to a new focus in astronomy, Alejandro is expanding on the work he started last year with Tabby's Star. He is organizing three other students who will be re-evaluating the 2017 results using a refined calibration technique developed by another Thacher student team (Colin Kirkpatrick and Piper Stacey). They will also be analyzing new 2018 data independent of the 2017 data and comparing the results from the two years. All of this work was made possible by the renovation of the Thacher observatory in December of 2016.

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