Searching for Supernovae

Student astronomical research project earns time at a professional observatory.
When certain stars reach the end of their lives, they go out with massive explosions so bright and spectacular that they often manage to briefly outshine entire galaxies. This is known as a supernova, and, up at the Thacher Observatory, students in Dr. Jon Swift’s Advanced Topics in Astronomy Research course have had the telescope trained on a particularly interesting one throughout the fall, watching as the explosive light dims over time. The data they’re collecting may one day help scientists unravel the mysteries of the expanding universe.

The course’s main objective is to equip students with a strong foundation in astronomical concepts and quantitative research skills so that they can springboard into their own astronomical research, emphasizing hands-on, real-world scientific inquiry through group research projects that last throughout the trimester. Seniors Katie O’Neill and Jeffrey Ding focused on supernovae throughout the fall, a project that was inspired by a partnership with Dr. Ryan Foley at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). His research on the expansion of the universe includes the study of supernovae; when his team identified an interesting supernova subject in July 2017, the Thacher Observatory began tracking it. Now, Katie and Jeffrey have amassed over six months of data.

“Supernovae are interesting to astronomers because most behave in very similar ways, meaning that they can be easily identified and cataloged even when they are very far away or very old,” describes Katie. “Astronomers can then use this information to calculate how fast the supernova was moving away from us at that point in time. By observing many supernovae, they can get a sense of the overall rate of expansion of the universe.”

Dr. Ryan Foley’s team at UCSC started a large-scale project to identify, observe, and analyze nearby supernovae, and we are helping this effort through our observations,” she continues.  “The supernova we’ve been observing is relatively nearby and we have very frequent and high-quality data, so we're both contributing to the overall understanding of it and serving as a check on Dr. Foley’s team’s independent data and analysis.”

Now, they’re looking to add a new dimension to their research. At the end of September 2017, Katie and Jeffrey, with the support and guidance of Dr. Swift, put together and submitted a proposal to the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) in Goleta with the hopes of earning time on LCO’s fleet of professional telescopes around the world to collect data that is outside current campus capabilities.

“Jeffrey and I wrote and submitted our proposal to LCO for time on the FLOYDS spectrograph early this fall,” says Katie. Unlike Thacher’s telescope, which currently can only produce images, a spectrograph would allow them to observe the chemical signature of their source by creating a spectrum from astronomical light.

At the end of October 2017, Katie, Jeffrey, and Dr. Swift found out that they had been granted two hours at LCO.

To be awarded time is a huge honor, and speaks volumes about the quality and relevance of the work our students are doing here,” said Dr. Swift.

He added: Katie and Jeffrey showed an impressive knowledge of the capabilities of our observatory and a broad understanding of cutting-edge research on supernovas to construct a compelling proposal to use LCO’s largest fleet of telescopes to complement the science we can do here on campus. I was very impressed with their work, and I only needed to offer cosmetic edits to their proposal before submission.”

Katie and Jeffrey’s efforts not only open the doors to further work with LCO but show that we have high caliber students worthy of receiving time on professional astronomical facilities for research purposes.”

Katie said of their success in earning time at LCO: “It’s incredibly exciting to be working with a professional observatory and this will help to further establish Thacher as a legitimate scientific facility.”

In the meantime, Katie and Jeffrey will continue to work on their supernova research throughout the winter term in Dr. Swift’s class. Dr. Foley visited Thacher in the late fall from UC Santa Cruz to work with them and other astronomy students, helping them deepen their knowledge base and increase their familiarity with the workings of the professional astronomical research community. Katie also plans to participate in a self-guided independent project in the afternoons this term to fit more time for the project into her weekly schedule.

Dr. Swift says of the project and others like it: “By participating in real, meaningful science I see these students solidifying their classroom skills, synthesizing ideas across disciplines, and learning how to put their knowledge to use toward a worthy goal. They quickly realize that science is not just a bunch of laws, rules, and equations. Rather, like any other human endeavor, it has many facets—creative, social, and political.”

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