Friday, May 17, 2013

Looking at the Absorption Spectrum of a Star

Josh, Sharon, and Honors Chemistry Students in the observatory

Josh is so excited that he can't stand still for a photo!
How many years does it take to get a project off the ground?  In this case, two.  Josh, the astronomy teacher here at Pomfret, and I have been batting around the idea of using our observatory to collect star spectrum data as a chemistry lab.  We do the traditional spectrum lab with gas tubes in the classroom every year.  Why not take the next step and look at the spectra from some stars?  Josh found the tools we needed to make this idea happen.  RSpec makes a diffraction grating attachment for telescope cameras that will generate spectra from stars and the software to analyze the data.  We can also use this same software to analyze the line spectra from our gas tubes in the lab.  Our plan is to collect some data for select elements in the lab using the gas tubes, analyze the data in RSpec, and then move to the observatory to collect data for some stars.  We are both really excited about the possibilities.

Jack and Chris are very excited about science.
This week we took a group of my Honors Chem students over to the observatory to give them a tour of the spectra data and analysis.  We didn't do a full lab with these kids, but we introduced them to this exciting project.  Josh and I were both feeling a bit unsure about the night at the obs because the end-of-the-year crunch is upon us.  However, being there with the kids showed us how exciting this kind of science project can be for everyone.  Josh was so inspired that he wants to change our curriculum to an "Astronomy First" department instead of "Physics First".  Next year we will start the year with this project.  Today at lunch we made a plan to use some of our summer vacation to solidify our goals and methods for collecting and analyzing star spectra.  Why not start the year with this exciting project.   Who knows what direction it will take us...
We also got a wonderful view of Saturn.  Sarah and Rachel were excited to see the rings.

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