WNC News & Notes: Observatory leads students to astronomy research project

Shelby Brown and Lake Shank worked actively with scientists collecting data at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Shelby Brown and Lake Shank worked actively with scientists collecting data at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

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Two Carson High School students got the chance to do real science research at an Arizona observatory this spring, thanks in large measure to Western Nevada College’s Jack C. Davis Observatory. Shelby Brown and Lake Shank, who will be seniors this fall, worked actively with scientists collecting data at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, located at 6,880 feet elevation in the Quinlan Mountains, about 55 miles southwest of Tucson.

The research opportunity was made possible through the Research and Education Cooperative Occultation Network (RECON), sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

In addition to Saturday evening stargazing and frequent free lectures for the public, WNC observatory director Robert Collier has welcomed interested high school and college students who wish to learn at the observatory on the Carson City campus. Their interest in science and astronomy, coupled with their mentors’ affiliations, helped lead the students to the on-site research opportunity.

Avid local astronomer Red Sumner, Carson High physics/astronomy instructor Jim Bean, and the CHS students joined other students and amateur astronomers from around the West to measure the size of asteroids in the Kuiper Belt, the solar system extending between the orbit of Neptune and the sun.

“They got a firsthand, authentic experience — a real astronomical experience — on Kuiper Belt objects to help with the study theory on solar system formation,” Bean said.

Sumner said the opportunity to visit and also contribute to a federally operated observatory project was invaluable to the students.

“It’s pretty exciting to see how a major observatory operates,” said Sumner, a former astronomy instructor at WNC and one of the early advocates and supporters for an observatory at the college. “The purpose of the observing was to obtain very precise positions for a number of Kuiper Belt Objects, KBOs, and use these precise positions to refine their orbits. The refined orbits will then be used to predict when a KBO will pass in front of a star. By timing the disappearance and reappearance of the star when the KBO passes, the size can be measured.”

Collier said participation in this federal project materialized from the training the participants received at the Davis Observatory.

“If WNC had no observatory, the opportunity afforded students and my staff would not have been possible,” he said. “The observatory staff members have taught and mentored the students to the point that they were recognized for their competence and skills level by Marc Buie, the principal investigator doing research on RECON.”

Bean, a Carson High School teacher for the past 14 years and a member of the board of governors at the Jack C. Davis observatory, concurred.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without Robert Collier and WNC for allowing my students and me to use the observatory,” Bean said.

Sumner said the data the group provided was exclusively performed on a computer console using a 4-meter telescope provided to the data collectors.

“This is second nature to the students. They pick this stuff up so fast,” Sumner said.

Through their research, some of the students discovered Kuiper Belt objects that had never been seen before, Bean said.

Collier is excited about the impact the research project could have on future students.

“This sort of activity could act as a catalyst for students trying to make decisions to get involved in STEM and science in general,” he said.


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