By Jean Andrews
Physics & Astronomy
Nine undergraduates and four graduate students enrolled in the Advanced Observational Astrophysics lab class set out with their professors to the MDM Observatory near Kitt Peak, a 6,316-foot (1,925 meters) mountain in southern Arizona last fall.
Looking up into the night sky can be a mind-expanding experience, especially while using telescopes on top of a mountain in the Sonoran desert.
Dr. Ryan Chornock, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy, and Dr. Joseph Shields, Professor of Physics & Astronomy, Vice-President for Research and Creative Activity and Dean of the Graduate College, taught the students how to use the equipment and telescopes.
The trip was made possible in part with support from the department and the Honors Tutorial College.
‘Now I Have a Clear Picture’
“It was the best opportunity to learn by doing. I had no idea before how the process of astronomy research is done, but now I have a clear picture,” says graduate student Kornpob Bhirombhakdi.
The MDM Observatory is a research facility operated by a consortium of five universities including Ohio University. The other institutions are Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan. In addition, MDM is located on a ridge next to Kitt Peak National Observatory, home to many other telescopes.
From Raw Data to Calibrated Experiments
Class objectives for the students included learning how to use the 1.3 meter diameter McGraw-Hill telescope at MDM and designing a research activity.
“As part of the class, students created their own projects and produced observing proposals just as professionals do for their research,” Chornock explains. “The ability to take data from a modern research-grade facility in person was a key part of the process.”
As part of the trip, the group took daytime tours of several of these other facilities to compare and contrast different designs for telescopes constructed over the last 50 years on the mountain. Highlights included visiting the Mayall reflector, with its 4-meter diameter primary mirror, and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. On their final day, they visited two facilities: the VERITAS gamma-ray observatory, and the Fred L. Whipple Observatory, a field installation located south of Tucson at the base of Mt. Hopkins.
One of most rewarding aspects of the trip for Chornock was to see how invested the students became in ensuring the success of their projects.
“After we returned to Athens, they worked extremely hard for the rest of the semester to convert the raw data taken at the telescope to actual calibrated scientific measurements. I was very pleased with the students’ final results, presented at the end of the semester as both written research papers and in the format of a mock oral presentation session of an American Astronomical Society meeting,” he said.
‘Fascinated to See Gigantic Telescopes at Work’