February 8, 2016

Desert Skies

Undergraduates study galaxy formation at Kitt Peak

Located in the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona is Kitt Peak National Observatory, where four UMass astronomy students traveled over winter break to map galaxies in the dark desert skies.

It’s the second year that UMass Amherst has sent undergraduates to the observatory. Led by Five College Teaching Fellow Anne Jaskot, students Alissa Roegge ‘17, Tim Costa ‘16, Teddy Kareta ‘17, and Steve Wagner ’17 operated a 0.9 meter diameter telescope, and collected and processed data. Powered by an unlimited coffee supply, they kept a nocturnal schedule that allowed them to see the light of distant galaxies. They also learned to plan nightly observations according to which bodies would be in the right position in the sky at a given time. “When you sign up to do astronomy, this is the kind of thing you dream about,” says Kareta.

picture of NGC 2366, 10 million light years from EarthThis picture of NGC 2366, 10 million light years from Earth, is one of the clear-filter images the students took to map galactic structure.

The students trained their scope on 13 blue compact dwarf galaxies that are intensely forming stars. Some of the galaxies are isolated, while others—in the Virgo cluster—have many neighbors and interactions to influence their evolution. Mapping galaxy structure and gas emissions, the research teams used clear filters when they wanted to let in all optical light, and narrow filters for specific wavelengths when they wanted to study the presence of particular elements. Since much remains to be discovered about these small galaxies, the undergraduates have a rare opportunity to do cutting-edge work.

The students will spend spring semester reducing and analyzing their data, then present their findings at a departmental poster session in April. The experience has given them practice in “real observing,” preparing them for the high level of work, reasoning, and research they will encounter in grad school and beyond.

During long exposures the students went outside to spot planets, comets, meteor showers, and even galaxies with their naked eyes. “Now I have to find a way to go to grad school out there because it’s so nice, it’s overwhelming to take in all at once,” says Roegge, who intends to specialize in planetary science. “You could see everything.

Adds Wagner, “It’s the darkest sky I’ve ever seen in my whole life—it was beautiful.”