Students at YSPA work in teams of 4 on an astrophysical research project that requires them to get data using telescopes at the Leitner Observatory (LFOP), such as our 16-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope shown here to the right, as well as from remote observatories in New Mexico, Chile, and Australia. Once students have enough data, they will use the python programing language and scientific python libraries to make a model that best fits and explains their data.
The specific research project at YSPA changes in some years, but in 2018 all students will work on modeling the sizes, shapes, and orbits of potentially hazardous near-earth asteroids. These are asteroids that have recently been discovered to have potentially earth-crossing orbits, and so we would like to better understand their orbits and physical characteristics. The IAU Minor Planet Center at Harvard compiles measurements of the positions of minor planets, including near-earth asteroids. Students at YSPA will make their own independent observations and measurements of positions and brightnesses of several of these objects, and these measurements will be submitted to the Minor Planet Center so that they can better understand and predict the future trajectories of the objects. Students will also use their observations and archived measurements to model the orbits of the asteroids and their potential long-term fates. Will they hit the earth some day? Will they hit Jupiter or Mars? Or will they be ejected from the Solar System forever? Are any of these asteroids potential targets for human exploration or space mining some day in the future?
In addition to measuring the positions of the asteroids, students will measure the brightnesses of the asteroids as they get closer or further away and as they tumble through space. Since students will have observations from several locations around the earth (New Haven, New Mexico, Chile, and Australia), they will be able to triangulate the distance to the asteroid. Depending on the brightness of the asteroids and the availability of telescope time during YSPA, it may be possible to get near-infrared colors of some of the objects. When all of these data are considered together, it is possible to determine the shape, rotation period, reflectivity, and surface composition of each asteroid. For some of these recently-discovered objects, these characteristics have never before been measured.
(3D model of the asteroid 2867 Steins based on its changing brightness, or “light curve,” as it tumbles through space. Diagram courtesy of ESA/Rosetta.)
Students work on these research projects using a combination of professional software tools (such as the astropy and numpy python libraries) as well as their own code to construct a data pipeline that will efficiently calibrate their data from the telescopes. Students then use their data to optimize a model of the asteroid orbit. By the end of the program, each research team will have several dozen measurements of the positions, brightnesses, and photometric colors of their asteroids, and they will learn and apply skills in data science and management to their research project. (Student will also work on other, smaller projects in data analysis to learn these skills and to learn to think like a data scientist.) All along the way, students receive close supervision and mentoring by professional astronomers.
At the end of the program, each research team will write a report on their project in the form of a scientific paper and they will present their results at a mini-conference where they will get feedback from the faculty and other students.
After YSPA, some students may want to continue to work on their research project and expand it for a science fair or talent search program or as a senior capstone project at their high school. Some projects may turn into published papers in refereed science journals.
(Model of the orbit of the asteroid 2005 JF21 in red, based on observations by high school students at the Leitner Observatory in 2015. The earth’s orbit is shown in blue. It looks like it’s going to miss us!)