Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Student looks to the skies in astronomy research project

If scientists ever discover a giant asteroid on a collision course with our planet, they will owe a lot of their information on the asteroid to the observations of amateur astronomers such as Hart Gillespie ’15.

Gillespie is conducting a Summer Research project at Winfree Observatory, Randolph College’s 90-year-old observatory with a 14-inch telescope. He hopes to record an asteroid occultation and submit the data to an international database that helps scientists track asteroids.

An asteroid occultation is an instance when an asteroid passes between the earth and a star, blocking part or all of the light. An astronomer can observe that part or all of the star disappears momentarily, ranging from a split second to as long as 20 seconds. This can provide valuable information on an asteroid that is otherwise invisible.

“All you need is one occultation to see that the asteroid was there, but you would know where it was in only one instance in time,” said Gillespie, a physics major. “You would have no idea where it’s going, or how fast it is going, and you would not know the shape of the asteroid.” Those additional details can be pieced together as astronomers from many locations track occultations and send their data to the International Occultation Timing Association.

Gillespie’s plan is to pay attention to asteroid occultation predictions, usually published about a week in advance of a potential occultation, to schedule time to work in the observatory in hopes of viewing an occultation.

Observing occultations has been more difficult than Gillespie had anticipated, mainly because of weather conditions over the past several weeks. “I’ve learned it's cloudy a lot, so maybe I should go into radio astronomy,” he said.

While waiting for clear skies, Gillespie has been working with the College’s facilities staff on plans to improve the observatory facility with an electrical upgrade, scaffolding that will make the telescope easier to use, and a first-floor classroom area. He hopes the changes will make Randolph College Star Parties, held about once a month, more enjoyable for amateur astronomers in Lynchburg and more useful for physics education at Randolph.