Your Student Can Find Supernova

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
Stephen Hawking

Fifty years ago, humans first set foot on the moon.  In recognition of this, I thought I would discuss how astronomy classes can conduct real astronomy research.  As I have said in many of my posts, most current best practices in STEAM education recommend that students perform real science.

One of the arguments I have repeatedly encountered is that real science requires equipment that is too expensive for student labs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While scientific equipment on the cutting edge of science can be costly general improvements in technology, mean that students can use hobby grade instruments for scientific observations.

As an example, digital SLR cameras can be used to find supernova.  As a step up a simple telescope and digital camera like many schools already have can also be used.  Having the equipment fixed in a dedicated spot in a shed or dome that opens is helpful but also not necessary.  Students can also set up the equipment each night to make observations.

The basic technique to find supernova is to take lots of pictures of night sky night after night.  Then compare the images and look for a star (you’re looking at galaxies, not individual stars) that gets brighter or appears where there was not a visible star.  The biggest drawback to the discovery of supernova is simply the amount of data that the students will need.  On the website for BOSS Backyard Observatory Supernova Search under the setting up a search page they list supernova discoveries from several individuals

  • Tim Puckett (one of the largest in the world) ~1 SN every 8000 images (300+ SN)
  • Robert Evens ~ 1 SN every 4000 observations (47 SN)
  • Peter Marples ~ 1 SN per 5000 images (8 SN)
  • Me ~ 1 SN every 2800 images (57 SN)

Using these numbers as a baseline, we would find one supernova on average every 4950 images. If we assume a 15-week semester, the class would have to take 330 pictures per week.  Assuming students take one image every minute, 330 images would take 5.5 hours over one night or 2.75 hours over two nights.   With a class of 25 students, each student would need to examine 198 images or 13-14 images per week.  A better approach would be to have two students review 396 images so that two students separately review each 198-image set. All these numbers seem reasonable for a semester-long class.

Once students capture the images, students analyze the images in one of three methods.  In all methods, you compare the new images you take with a set of reference images.  You can either make your reference images.  Or download reference images from the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS). You then compare your new images to the reference images and look for differences.  The first way to do this is to compare the two images side by side and look for differences.  The second method is to blink the images. The new image is aligned and laid on top of the reference image, and the computer rapidly clicks between them. A free tool to do this is Starblinker.  The third method is automated software, but that can be expensive and is only suitable for projects that collect 1000s or more images a night (there are problems and drawbacks to automated software I will not get into). 

When your students discover a new Supernova (we will assume that if you review enough images, you will be successful.), the students can learn about submitting their discovery to Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. A new supernova report will require the students to take additional images and measurements.

Any scientific research can be used to teach students the basics of research and observation.  The search for and discovery of supernova can be included in everything from a class for nonmajors to a dedicated research seminar.  Additionally, the students that conduct this type of research can be in almost any age group.  When we teach scientific research, it is essential to remember that science is a process and method of looking at the world, not the equipment we use.  So, get out there and find some stars that blew up.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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