BYU Students and Faculty Capture Astronomical Images at New Mexico Observatory


Students and professors of theBYU’s Department of Astronomy and Physics captured images from space at an observatory in New Mexico to conduct research explaining the evolution of the universe.

Students and professors in BYU’s Department of Astronomy and Physics captured images from space at an observatory in New Mexico to conduct research explaining the evolution of the universe. (Photo courtesy of Tom Stephens)

Students and faculty from the Department of Physics and Astronomy visited the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico in early October. Seven graduate students and three undergraduates were able to visit and receive training on the use of the 3.5-meter telescope. This training enabled them to easily capture images remotely from their computers and use them for research projects carried out by professors in the department.

Brown Dwarf Spectral Imaging Project

Denise Stephens received her Masters and Doctorate degrees. from New Mexico State University and was one of the travel advisory professors leading a research project on brown dwarfs. She specializes in studying the atmospheres of brown dwarfs and has captured images of spectra travelling.

The spectra plots of three different brown dwarfs are shown, a mid-L spectral type dwarf (red), a mid-T spectral type dwarf (blue), and a plot of a brown LT transition dwarf (green) . Spectral characteristics indicating the presence of different molecules are noted. These spectral characteristics provide information on the composition of brown dwarf atmospheres. (Photo courtesy of Savanah Turner)

Brown dwarfs are objects with masses between those of the heaviest gas planets and the lightest stars. These objects form like a star, but do not have enough mass to ignite the fusion of hydrogen in the nucleus, which is why they are sometimes called failed stars.

Undergraduate student Conner Scoresby and graduate student Savanah Turner worked alongside Stephens in the Brown Dwarfs Project, using spectral imagery to study the physics of the atmosphere as clouds descend lower in the air.

“We were able to take data remotely using this telescope for a while,” Turner said. “But it was super helpful to be able to go there in person and see this telescope giving out such incredible data.”

Using spectral imaging of brown dwarfs, Stephens, Scoresby and Turner were able to identify the absorption characteristics of radiation, or light, from brown dwarfs. Stephens said from these images they can see how much radiation is absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere, absorbed by clouds, and how much escapes through holes in clouds. These gaps of light can be seen by imaging.

“There are a lot of brown dwarfs out there, but we’re targeting the question of what’s happening to the clouds,” Stephens said. She said as the clouds clear, they can understand the physics and chemistry of what’s going on in the atmosphere.

Scoresby observes the tendencies of brown dwarfs and reduces the data received from the telescope. Turner then uses codes that fit the data to the models so that he can understand what’s going on in the atmosphere. They can then apply this data to other planets to better understand planets orbiting other stars.

“If we can understand the mechanics at play, it will give us better data points and more information that we can apply to modeling the atmosphere of giant planets,” Scoresby said.

Arrow pointing to a moving Kuiper Belt object observed and taken at Apache Point Observatory. (Photo courtesy of Ben Proudfoot)

Kuiper Belt Observation Project

The BYU group also examined objects in the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is a ring of icy objects beyond Neptune’s orbit; Pluto is one of these objects. Ben Proudfoot, the graduate student working on this project, used the telescope to identify objects that are part of the Haumea family.

The Haumea is a large egg-shaped object that is part of the Kuiper Belt that was allegedly hit in the past and survived the collision. Proudfoot observed the broken pieces of Haumea by examining the color of the object. The blue color indicates fresh ice from a recent hit, while most items in the belt are red as they age. Proudfoot said the color and location of the objects says a lot about the solar system.

“We are trying to understand how the solar system formed and evolved by looking at the frozen debris. Where this debris is located can tell us how the solar system was formed and how all the evolutionary processes took place, ”said Proudfoot.

Galaxies surface photometry project

Aleksandr Mosenkov, who has a doctorate. in Physics and Astronomy from St. Petersburg State University, led the third research project: surface photometry of galaxies. Mosenkov’s area of ​​research is the formation and evolution of galaxies, based on the exploration of surface photometry, kinematics, and the use of galaxy simulations to help understand the formation and evolution of galaxies. galaxies.

He used different filters in the telescope to observe the morphology of galaxies. These images allowed him to see the nucleus and structure of three different galaxies at low surface light.

“I know there is something special about them,” Mosenkov said. “I guess there are many galaxies that have interesting characteristics and there is no mention in the scientific literature.”

He said he wanted to collect larger observational samples of galaxies to publish research that can help further research on other galaxies besides the Milky Way.

Stephens said there are a lot of questions in science and it’s important to understand that science is happening. Through research experiences like these, students and faculty can create hypotheses and collect data to answer these questions.

Students in front of the Apache Point Observatory sign. (Photo courtesy of Tom Stephens)

“There is no such thing as ‘we know everything’. For astronomy, it’s really about trying to understand the evolution of the universe, ”Stephens said. “In many ways, the questions we pursue all relate to where we came from and the origin of the earth and the solar system. “

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