Astronomy Research Projects & Data

M31 Nova Search

Nova Search

Discover flaring novae in nearby galaxies!

There is currently a debate about the rate of novae (white dwarf stars in binary systems that undergo violent periodic surface outbursts) in different types of stellar populations — principally older stars in elliptical galaxies and the central bulges of spirals compared to younger stars in irregular galaxies and the disks of spirals. Novae rates depend on properties of the different populations such as the number of binaries, the mass of the pre-nova stars, and the population’s formation history.

In this project, you will search for novae in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy by “blinking” images of portions of Andromeda taken at different times. You will be using data from a 0.9 meter telescope archive of images that extends back several years. You will be measuring apparent magnitudes of suspected novae over time to determine their classification and rate of decay. With a little bit of luck you and your students may be the first to discover a new nova!

Nova Search background & supporting material and data

M16, the Eagle Nebula

Open Clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy

Study the properties of various star clusters in our galaxy!

Many people can find the Pleiades in the sky, but few know that these stars are a physically connected group. Stellar clusters represent an important snapshot of stellar evolution. Because they are all at the same distance from us, it’s possible to compare their properties without the confusion introduced when the stars are at differing distance. And with images of a cluster taken through several different filters, we can estimate the temperature and the luminosity of each cluster member.

In this project you will determine both the distance and the age of different star clusters using images taken at the 0.9-m WIYN telescope. You can examine the question of membership: it’s not easy to tell which stars are part of a cluster and which ones are foreground or background stars.

Open Clusters background & supporting material and data

The Carina Nebula

Spectroscopy of Giant and Supergiant Variable Stars

Probe the strange behavior of irregular variable stars!

Variable stars, or stars that undergo intrinsic light variations, come in many varieties. In this project you will look at the properties of a class of bright semi-regular stars that have spectra similar to the Sun’s. These giant and supergiant stars are highly variable due to their present evolutionary state in which they pulsate irregularly and, at times, eject dense shells in which carbon atoms form into opaque grains, blocking much of the emitted light. The next evolutionary step for these semi-regular variables is to become planetary nebulae (or maybe a supernovae) after which their remnant core will remain as a white dwarf star. By comparing the spectra of these stars with that of the Sun, we may better understand the properties of both.

In this project, you will be using data from the Coudé Feed telescope. These spectra will be used to create a data base of these odd variables. You will use these data to study the relationships between changes in spectral appearance, observed spectral features, and the brightness variations of these stars. The goal is to improve our understanding of these stars, their physical state and the nature of their changes, and how they fit into the general scheme of stellar evolution.

Spectroscopy of Variable Stars background & supporting material and data

The AGN Search

AGN Spectroscopy

Uncover the mysteries of distant galaxies!

The evolution of galaxies since the Big Bang is a very active area of current research in astronomy. Quasars, radio galaxies, and X-ray explosions were abundant in the early history of the universe, but few remain today. The properties of these objects — including orientation, environment, and intrinsic physical properties — give clues to conditions in the early universe.

In this project, you will take spectra of galaxies such as quasars (called AGNs since they have very high energy “active galactic nuclei”) using a 2.1 meter telescope that will be included in an archive of spectra that have been gathered over a period of several years. You will classify your spectra to see if your objects are quasars, radio galaxies, or something more exotic. You will then use these data to address other questions such as: are quasars more numerous than radio galaxies? Are they more or less luminous? You will be observing and classifying these objects for the first time and adding your results to a data set used by other astronomers.

AGN Spectroscopy background & supporting material and data

KPVT Sunspot

Solar Magnetic Fields

Study how magnetic fields create features on the solar surface!

The atmosphere is the Sun is a maelstrom of hot gases, charged particles, and magnetic fields. Earth is affected not only by light from the Sun, but also by ejection of the solar wind and huge masses of energetic particles that buffet Earth’s magnetosphere, sometimes wreaking havoc on our sensitive electrical systems. Variations in the Sun’s cycle also profoundly influence Earth’s weather. While astronomers have made great advances in recent years in their understanding of magnetism as the heart of most solar processes, many important connections pertaining to the Sun’s magnetic field remain a mystery. For example, how are the size, evolution, and magnetic fields strengths of sunspots related to each other? How do these quantities compare over time, at different latitudes and different wavelengths?

In this project, you will take infrared spectra of sunspots using the McMath-Pierce solar telescope, the largest in the world. You will examine lines split by the Zeeman Effect to determine the spatial and temporal changes in the near-surface solar magnetic field. Your data will be added to a growing archive of solar images that you will use to investigate one of a number of problems, including the growth and decay of sunspots and the relation of magnetic field strength to sunspot properties. The database of solar images includes maps of the magnetic field strength, the continuum data, and the velocity field.

Background and supporting material and data required for this project (this material is still in development)

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The Astronomy RBSE program is administered by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory with funds from the National Science Foundation.