Astronomy class discovers new cosmic concepts

RAHS’ UW Astronomy class is preparing for presenting their end of year projects to astronomers and physicists on 12 June.

Astronomy student junior Paul Richards is excited to present what he and his group have discovered to students, astronomers, and physicists.

“We are going to be presenting to two people from the University of Washington,” said Richards. “One a physicist, and the other in a field of astronomy whether that be an astronomer or an astrophysicist.”

Richards has been working on projects relating to the spectra of an astronomical object.

“The project that I am doing entails the determination of the nature of two objects in a binary system [a system where two stars orbit each other],” said Richards, “based off of the spectra [color wavelength] and Doppler shift of the H-alpha line [wavelength of ionized hydrogen].”

Students have been working hard to prepare by creating a poster, writing a scientific paper, and building a strong presentation. Senior Eleanor Pahl is making sure she understands all of her work, particularly the math, so that her group is able to answer any questions.

“On top of just practicing presenting,” said Pahl,  “we are also looking at going over the math a lot and going over the graphs making sure we understand everything so that if they ask questions we will be able to explain.”

Astronomy teacher Nikhil Joshi decided that these projects (Binary Stars, Stellar Properties, and Galaxy Rotation) are perfect for students to get a taste of what astronomy is like in college and in an astronomical career.

“The goal of the projects is for students to apply what they’ve learned over the year to analyzing data and creating models similar to how professional astronomers work,” said Joshi. “The goal is for students to understand how scientists work in general and astronomers in particular.”

The project that senior Thomas Kirby has been working on provided an opportunity to see how everything that was taught throughout the year can be applied.

“It’s been an interesting way of applying the things we learned throughout the whole year,” said Kirby, “[as] each of the components [within the project] such as how to get the information to find the area of isolated parts [within the project], only now we get to do it.”

The class was assigned to three different projects at the end of April and groups were separated into their particular project based on their mathematical level.

“[Sections are] based on our abilities in math,” said Richards, “and what math class we are in.”

Pahl has been working on the Galaxy Rotation project, and is trying to understand the relationship between speed and the rotation of galaxies.

“We are looking at the rotation speed of galaxies,” said Pahl, “and we are trying to model that using calculus.”

In order to do this project, astronomy students had to understand both astronomical and mathematical concepts.

“We primarily needed to have an understanding of sine waves and basic pre-calculus mathematics,” said Richards, “and just beyond that we had to have a lot of background in astronomy.”

In senior Thomas Kirby’s project, the group needed a strong understanding of blackbody curves—the thermal radiation of an object.

“We are analyzing the spectra of two stars to find information about them,” said Kirby, “which includes the temperature of the star based on its blackbody curve, the distance a star is away from the Earth, the radius of the star, and potentially its rotation speed.”

Students had to refresh their Microsoft Excel skills in order to calculate and graph the computations they have made.

“We mostly had to learn excel in order to do all of our calculations,” said Kirby. “We started by plugging in data of the emission spectra and then matching it to what the spectra should look like and them from there find out how hot it is [the object] from the maximum wavelength and how far away it is from us.”

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