University of Arizona astronomy club sees its research published in major publication

2013-02-24T00:00:00Z University of Arizona astronomy club sees its research published in major publicationBrenna Goth Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Research is a reward for some astronomy undergrads at the UA.

It's a tough major, said Allison Towner, a senior in physics and astronomy. Differential equations, physics and other theoretical courses can challenge students before they reach observation-based classes.

But research outside the classroom can balance the difficult subjects within it, said Towner, who was president of the University of Arizona Astronomy Club last semester.

The club provides research opportunities to students from freshmen to seniors. It published its first peer-reviewed paper in the January Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The paper listed 26 student authors, including collaborators in Indiana, New York and London, who navigated it from proposal through research and writing to publication.

"To get a project that you're completely in charge of, that's incredible," Towner said.

The extrasolar planet project is focused on detecting the magnetic fields of planets outside our solar system. Club members started observations several years ago as a way to simulate the professional research process, said Jake Turner, who helped establish the project as an undergraduate student in 2009.

The students drafted a proposal and applied for telescope time to observe two previously discovered extrasolar planets using the 61-inch Kuiper Telescope on Mount Bigelow, said Turner, who graduated in 2011 and is now a research technician for the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. The planets, called "hot Jupiters," are a few times bigger than Jupiter and are extremely close to their host stars, Turner said.

The research measured the transits of these extrasolar planets, which occur when the planet crosses in front of its host star. The crossing creates a variation in the light the star emits.

Members analyzed the data for one of the planets, TrES-3b, to create a light curve to detect its magnetic field. They observed nine transits in one visible light and three ultraviolet light bands, then compared the differences to arrive at the planet's magnetic field strength, according to the paper.

Findings show that the planet has an unusually low magnetic field, Turner said, which may point to the need to study the magnetic fields of extrasolar planets using other methods.

Magnetic fields of extrasolar planets can help determine their other properties including rotation periods and the presence of moons, Turner said. They also play a role in the habitability of a planet and could help researchers find life outside our solar system, he said.

But there's no chance of life on TrES-3b. It's nearly six times hotter than the Earth and can't support liquid water, Turner said

Turner decided to pursue publishing the research after club members presented their findings at a conference, he said. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society accepted the paper last fall and released it in print in January.

For many of the club members given credit with the observations or analysis, it was their first published research, Turner said.

"It's pretty difficult," he said. "Research is never straightforward. You might not get it published while you're in school."

Published or presented research is a near necessity for astronomy students who want to go to graduate school, said Don McCarthy, an astronomer for Steward Observatory and lecturer who has worked with club members.

Research opportunities are available in the astronomy department, but student-initiated projects are more rare, he said.

"I think that's an unusually cool experience," McCarthy said.

The project has expanded so most students have their own planets to analyze. Fourteen students are analyzing the data of 12 extrasolar planets.

Turner offers independent study credit for the work, which he says exposes students to techniques they will need for observational astronomy courses. Students can also try to publish their findings.

The astronomy club, which has about 30 to 40 members, offers academic and social support as well as community outreach, Towner said.

Students don't have to be astronomy majors to join, but research gives those in the field a taste of potential careers post-graduation.

"That's all you're going to do as an astronomer," Towner said.

"It's pretty difficult. Research is never straightforward. You might not get it published while you're in school."

Jake Turner,

who helped establish the extrasolar project as an undergraduate

Brenna Goth is a NASA Space Grant intern. Email: bgoth@azstarnet.com

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