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Astrophysics course gives undergraduates hands-on experience

Students use telescopes and detectors to learn about the universe
November 24, 2014
Instructor Phil Langill, top left, and students Thomas Campbell, Robert Bell, Lius Welbanks Camarena, Armando Davalos and Victor Samayoa Donado review data collected for their ASPH 307 group projects.

Instructor Phil Langill, top left, and students Thomas Campbell, Robert Bell, Lius Welbanks Camarena, Armando Davalos and Victor Samayoa Donado review data collected for their ASPH 307 group projects.

Image of the Sun taken through an RAO telescope with H-alpha filter during the partial solar eclipse on October 23, 2014. Photo shot remotely by students in ASPH 307

While hundreds of people on campus watched the partial solar eclipse on Oct. 23 in awe, a small group of undergraduate students gathered in a Science B computer lab to collect data on the phenomenon. Their work is part of an astrophysics course designed to provide students with knowledge and hands-on experience in observational astronomy.   

Phil Langill is an instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO), the university’s astronomical teaching and research facility located south of Calgary. With his department’s support and assistance from graduate students, he developed Introduction to Observational Astrophysics (ASPH) 307 to give undergrads the opportunity to work with research-grade instruments, which include the 0.4-metre Clark-Milone telescope with its new CCD camera and solar telescopes fitted with typical visible-light and specialized H-alpha filters.

“Before ASPH 307, our astrophysics program was weighted toward theory with little observational opportunities. But now there’s a nice blend. The objective of this course is for students to develop an understanding of how telescopes and detectors work, and their fundamental role in increasing our understanding of the universe,” says Langill.

Weather and scheduling challenges

Students work in groups on a variety of research projects requiring them to collect their own data, analyze it and produce reports. But this is southern Alberta in the fall. “It’s a bit nutty to design a course that depends on the weather but we’ve got lots of archived data that students can work with if clouds and fog don’t allow observations. Thankfully the elements have co-operated very nicely so far,” explains Langill. “The students also work with various star catalogues and databases like Simbad and the Minor Planet Center website.”

This is the second year the course has been offered and Langill is still learning to work around the challenges of bad weather and scheduling group meetings with 32 busy undergrads. Fortunately, three of the telescopes at the RAO can be controlled remotely, allowing students to conduct the majority of their research from the university campus. 

“The advances at the RAO since I was the resident astronomer there in the early to mid-'90s are amazing,” says Langill. “At that time the largest data storage devices were floppy disks, and there was no Internet connection. Today students can collect gigabytes of data in one observing session and transfer it to campus via the Internet as well as access databases around the world.”

Results from eclipse observations

And what of the data collected on Oct. 23? “This team of students conducted two simultaneous observations of the start of the eclipse with synchronized computers running two solar telescopes — one with an H-alpha filter; the other with a white light filter,” explains Langill.

With each scope recording "first contact" between Moon and Sun at different times due to the filters, he’s hoping the students’ dataset will allow them to calculate the thickness of the Sun’s chromosphere.

Langill is excited to be teaching a course that provides undergraduate students with authentic experiential learning. “The RAO is a terrific facility and I’m glad to see it being used more for teaching undergrads. In four months these students are getting a small taste of what it usually takes a career for an astrophysicist to learn about.”