Argonne helps high-schoolers reach for the stars

By Jared SagoffSeptember 24, 2009

ARGONNE, Ill. — It doesn't take a telescope the size of a barn to make a meaningful contribution to astronomy – just dedication and a few fresh pairs of eyes.

With assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, Rockford high school teacher Dallas Turner and his Advanced Placement students from Auburn High School will be able to observe and obtain information on distant supernovas that larger installations typically pass over.

Supernovas are exploding stars that astronomers have used as benchmarks, or "standard candles," for determining distances in space.  By measuring the intensity of the light emitted by these supernovas, astronomers can determine their distance from the Earth.  Most research has focused on a particular type of supernova, known as Type Ia, which provides some of the most valuable information about the geography of space.  "By working out the periodicity of supernovas, you can establish how bright they are, and if you can establish how bright they are, you can know how far away they are," Turner said.

Astronomers have devoted far less attention, however, to dimmer Type II supernovas.  To get a good sense of the full "light curve" – astronomers' term for perceived intensity over time – of a Type II supernova would require large amounts of telescope time, and large observatories do not have the resources to make such studies. 

In the absence of enough sustained, large-scale investigations of non-Type Ia supernovas, amateur astronomers like Turner and his students have taken up much of the slack.  As part of the collaborative Dark Energy Survey, Turner and the Auburn students will drive out to an empty field west of Rockford, where dark skies will enable them to observe dim supernovas with an amateur – though pricy – telescope.

Several of the supernovas that the students will study have not been scientifically observed at all in the previous six months, a gap that complicates efforts to determine official luminosities.  The apparent brightness of supernovas changes over time, and so frequent observations yield more confident assessments of a supernova's intensity and thus its location.

Turner obtained the $6,000 needed to purchase the telescope, as well as supplemental funding and support, from Argonne's Teachers as Research Associates program, which pairs high-school teachers with Argonne scientists for summer research projects.  The partnerships typically last for three summers, and the program encourages teachers to appropriate the knowledge that they have gained in the laboratory to the classroom, said Argonne educational program director Lou Harnisch.  "Ideally, we hope that teachers get a real appreciation for what research science consists of, which they can then communicate and share with their students," he said.