Students Collaborate with KELT Project to Deepen Understanding of Solar System

Posted: April 22, 2014 at 5:02 am, Last Updated: April 25, 2014 at 9:52 am

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By Michele McDonald

George Mason University astronomy students are using Mason’s telescope to study planets around stars that are tens to hundreds of light years away as part of their class assignments and an international research collaboration.

Mason astronomy students Sean Terry and Alex Panka on a trip to the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia.

Mason astronomy students Sean Terry and Alex Panka on a trip to the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia.

“We’re doing real research and are part of worldwide work,” says Sean Terry, a junior from Manassas who’s majoring in astronomy. “We’re adding knowledge to the current field. In terms of my undergraduate work, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice what I want to do in my career.”

Researchers have verified more than 1,000 exoplanets with thousands more to be proven or disproven, says Jessica Rosenberg, an associate professor in the School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Science. George Mason students are taking a closer look at a particular group of these planets called “hot Jupiters,” or giant gas planets that are very near their stars, in solar systems beyond Earth. Some of this work is being done in collaboration with the KELT (Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope) project, a survey of exoplanets. The worldwide project is divided into KELT North and KELT South.

The KELT team provides Mason students with the information about possible exoplanets that they need to observe; Mason students then wait for a clear night when the suspected exoplanet is expected to be in view and record the brightness of the star over the course of several hours to determine whether they do or do not see evidence for a gas giant orbiting the star.

The first detection of an exoplanet at Mason was made by students in the ASTR 402 Methods of Observational Astronomy class, taught by Rosenberg last fall. The first detections were used to qualify Mason as part of the KELT project. Observations of exoplanets for the KELT project have continued this spring. The undergraduates involved are taking UNIV 491 Students as Scholars Individualized Scholarly Experience, a course devoted to doing research with the Mason telescope. These classes are part of Mason’s research and scholarship-intensive coursework.

The Research Hall observatory on a observing session night. Photo by Creative Services.

The Research Hall observatory during an evening observing session. Photo by Creative Services.

It’s hands-on research that’s searching for answers to complex questions. Mason students are helping to change what we know about our understanding of planets to go beyond the familiar model of our solar system, Rosenberg says.

“Studying these exoplanets is a piece in a much bigger puzzle in which we are learning how solar systems form,” Rosenberg says. “What kind of planets can exist? What are the demographics of planets? Do they tend to look more like Jupiter or are they small rocky things? It turns out the smaller rocky planets outside of our solar system are much harder to find.”

A former Mason student helped current students become part of the KELT project. Joseph Rodriquez Jr. graduated in 2012 from Mason with a master’s degree in applied and engineering physics. He’s now a research assistant and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, which is home to the KELT South project.

“Even though I performed research at the Carnegie Institute, the professors who taught my courses at George Mason University were excellent in making sure the students truly understood the material,” Rodriquez says. “A lot of the concepts they taught, I use today in my research at KELT.”

Prabal Saxena, a Mason doctoral student in the Computational Sciences and Informatics Program who has been helping to lead the effort to study exoplanets with the Mason observatory, says the student-driven discoveries create excitement.

“While we are led by the advice of Professor Rosenberg on our KELT project, we’ve had numerous undergraduate and graduate students join our newly formed George Mason University exoplanet group, which should help us augment our planet-hunting efforts,” says Saxena, who hails from Hicksville, N.Y. . “We’re glad to have the help, and I can’t think of too many cooler things to be doing than trying to find new planets!”

Saxena and fellow graduate student Alex Panka will work until 4 a.m. or later on nights when they think they can find a planet for the KELT project.

Panka says Mason’s telescope, a rarity on the East Coast, makes it possible to do the research. “It’s a proud thing to say we use the telescope to advance the field. It’s a competitive instrument.”

But it can’t win against a cloudy day. When bad weather moves in, work stops. “Even if there’s a 10 percent chance of rain, we can’t do our job,” Panka says. “We check the weather forecast more than anyone I know.”

For many students, the KELT project is part of a childhood dream. “It goes back to when I was little and my friends wanted to be astronauts; I knew I wanted to go into astronomy,” Terry says.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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