NASA’s Blue Sleuths Twenty PA students, led by physics and astronomy instructor Caroline Odden, are on a mission to characterize hundreds of “unusually blue objects” located in a patch of sky known as the Kepler Field. In January, Odden, supervisor of the Phillips Academy Observatory, was selected to be part of NITARP, a NASAaffiliated program that teamed six educators with two NASA scientists to pioneer new astronomical research. In its search for exoplanets—planets outside the Solar System—the Kepler Satellite measures the brightness variations of more than 100,000 stars. This voluminous data is used to identify stars that might be orbited by a habitable Earth-like planet. “Although not being studied by the Kepler team, the 300 blue objects that we are looking at could turn out to be interesting,” says Odden. “Most likely we’ll find active galactic nuclei, planetary nebula nuclei, white dwarfs, cataclysmic variables, X-ray binaries, and other weird objects. “The discovery of white dwarfs—very dense small stars composed mostly of electron-degenerate matter— would be particularly significant and might warrant further study by the Kepler team. This would be pretty cutting edge stuff because so little is understood about whether exoplanets can survive the evolution of a main sequence star into a white dwarf.” Odden and her students prepped for the project during winter term and met weekly this spring to create a Spectral Energy Distribution (SED)—a plot of wavelength versus brightness— for each blue object. “If you shoot images of the same object through many different filters and measure the object’s brightness in each image, you get the information needed to produce an SED. By comparing our SEDs to the SEDs of known objects, we hope to figure out what these things are.”
In July, the six educators and a handful of students will meet at Caltech to finalize and report on their findings.
NASA funding will allow astronomy instructor Caroline Odden (foreground) to take lowers Claire Carroll and James Falese to Caltech this summer for five days of intensive project work.
Andover | Spring 2012