Don’t miss the “Shadow the Scientists – Astronomy Nights”

Nov 20, 2021

Ever wondered what it would be like to be an astronomer? Now is your chance!

Professor Raja GuhaThakurta from the University of California Santa Cruz is offering a virtual glimpse into the daily (or should we say nightly) routine of an astronomer while using a professional telescope to observe the cosmos.

On different nights, Professor GuhaThakurta and his research team will use the Keck II telescope (whose primary mirror is 10 meters in diameter) or Lick Observatory’s Shane telescope (whose primary mirror is 3 meters in diameter) to view images and spectra of various stars. 

And you can join them! 

Thanks to Zoom and a generosity of spirit, you can “Shadow the Scientists” on November 22/23, as well as three days in early December. (See below for the full Zoom details and schedule.)

Like our own podcast, Newsy Pooloozi, this initiative was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Frustrated at the concept of not being able to go to observatories, Professor GuhaThakurta and other astronomers figured out how to operate the telescopes right from their homes using their laptops. This, in turn, gave them a new opportunity to connect with students and teachers around the world. 

They saw that children were excited to get involved in something “authentic” like this, and took advantage of the lockdown to show kids how scientists work and what all they do to push the frontiers of knowledge. 

“Children get to know that science is a team sport, that scientists are very much real people, only with a job that can get very complicated at times,” he said.

The Keck and Shane telescopes are very special and powerful.  The adaptive optics system and NIRC2 digital camera on the Keck telescope are used to record high resolution images. The Kast spectrograph on the Shane telescope and the ESI spectrograph on the Keck telescope are instruments that are used to measure spectra (singular: spectrum).

Adaptive optics is a method use to compensate in real time for the twinkling of stars caused by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere. A spectrum is basically when the light of a star is spread into its wavelengths, or colours. Studying this can help collect information about individual stars, like its speed, surface temperature, mass, chemical composition, and evolutionary state.

The team has taken particular interest in variable stars, which are ones in which brightness changes from time to time. 

How do these scientists use spectra to find these details? Well, they just study patterns, of course. 

For example, if the absorption lines in the spectrum shift back and forth periodically, it could mean the star is orbiting another one. The width and depth of the absorption lines can also help determine the chemical composition, temperature, size, and mass of the star!!

Our Milky Way galaxy is in the process of swallowing another galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud, or the LMC. 

In one of their nightly studies, the scientists together are trying to measure how the LMC is perturbing, or causing disturbance in the Milky Way during this process. 

“It’s a bit like watching a python digest a small animal that it recently swallowed,” GuhaThakurta explains.

He will also be keeping an eye on some very distant stars around 400,000 light-years away from the Earth in the Milky Way, which are being studied for the first time, to see how they are impacted by the LMC.

The initiative is in collaboration with Ohana Kilo Hōkū, an organization that helps create opportunities in astronomy for young people in Hawaii. 

SHADOW THE SCIENTISTS: Here are the 9 observing dates and PDT/PST times that are coming up along with Zoom links and links to the relevant proposals: You will need this: username = splash ; password = Androm3d@

Thu/Fri, Dec 2/3: 5:45 PM–6:00 AM PST — Lick Zoom link 

Fri/Sat, Dec 3/4: 5:45 PM–6:00 AM PST — Lick Zoom link 

Mon/Tue, Dec 6/7: 8:30 PM–8:00 AM PST — Keck Zoom link

To hear the Newsy Pooloozi podcast episode in which we interviewed Professor Thakurta click here!

This blog is by Sahasra Sridhar.