Seeing stars

4 January 2014

Sitting in the pitch-black darkness, the room is spinning and you are seeing stars, but it's not what you might think. This was Rebecca Davies' experience observing distant galaxies through the ANU 2.3m telescope as part of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA) Winter School.

Now in its second year, the Winter School is aimed at giving first and second year undergraduate students the opportunity to experience astronomy before they enroll in later year astronomy classes. This unique program gives students exclusive access to research telescopes as well as the chance to work with world famous astronomers.

Rebecca was in her first semester of a Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) with a fledgling interest in astronomy when she heard about the Winter School. "I had taken on an astronomy research project as part of my PhB, so I had been going to the Mount Stromlo Observatory for a couple of weeks. When they advertised the Winter School in my first year physics lecture I thought I have to get into this. It would introduce me to a lot of different areas in astronomy and show me other areas I might be interested in. I would get to meet people and make contacts and also get a chance to do some observing."

Students were selected based on academic achievements and their interest in astronomy. Rebecca was chosen along with nine other undergraduates for the week-long program. The students spent the first four days at Mount Stromlo Observatory for a series of lectures with leading astronomers. "The lectures themselves were very good," says Rebecca. "They covered a wide range of topics - optical and radio astronomy, stellar evolution, supernovae, galaxy evolution, cosmology, planetary science - giving you an overview of everything."

For most students, the highlight of the program was the opportunity to observe the skies using the ANU 2.3m telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarrabran in New South Wales. The students were given real targets to observe, working in pairs to decide on the different shots they wanted to gather, before preparing an observing proposal for their time on the telescope.

"Observing proposals are very important for astronomers because you have to compete for time on telescopes," explains Rebecca. "Most students don't get the chance to write a proposal until they want to start collecting data for their own projects. To be shown how write one before this is invaluable."

Targets ranged from planetary nebulae to galaxy groups to supernovae, each requiring different observing techniques to get optimum results. "The group looking at a supernova was taking thirty second exposures, whereas we were looking at a galaxy and had to take much longer exposures to get the features to come out. We had clouds during our observing time so had to change our plans and try to get some quick shots in the gaps."

Navigating your way through a working observatory can be challenging, Rebecca soon learned. "When you are observing, you can't have lights on in the dome of the telescope and when you slew to track an object the whole building moves. You can't really feel it when you are in the observing room, but the fun part comes when you want to go somewhere else. You have to go down four flights of stairs in the dark, very slowly, to get to the basement. The basement doesn't move but the rest of the building moves, so each time you are in a different place. You leave the building and when you come back the door is in a different place!"

Rebecca says the Winter School staff had an exciting surprise in the program for students: "A block in our timetable was marked 'TBC'. Turns out we were conference calling Professor Brian Schmidt in Chile! He said you should pursue what you enjoy and you never know what is going to happen. It was pretty crazy! We were on Skype with Brian Schmidt!"

Students also accompanied Dr Rob McNaught, who discovered Comet McNaught, in his search for near-Earth objects with the Uppsala Near Earth Object Survey Telescope. "It was astronomy in action," says Rebecca.

The program was rounded out with behind-the-scenes tours of the biggest optical telescope in Australia - the Anglo-Australian Telescope - the UK Schmidt telescope and the Parkes Radio Telescope, before returning to Canberra.

Back to studying on campus, Rebecca says she really enjoyed the Winter School and will continue to pursue astronomy. "The Winter School was a bit of hard work but it was definitely worth it. It's a pretty unique experience for someone in first year."

This article first appeared in ScienceWise.

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