HIGH POINT, N.C., Dec. 29, 2015 – High Point University physics students have once again made a discovery of astronomical proportion. Alan Vasquez and Eugene Filik discovered pulsations in a star during a research trip to the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile over fall break.
The students made the discovery of the pulsating white dwarf using software Vasquez created during HPU’s inaugural Summer Research Program in the Sciences (SuRPS) this past summer and one of the observatory’s advanced telescopes, available to HPU through its membership in the SMARTS Consortium.
The discovery was a special treat for the students, who accompanied Dr. Brad Barlow, assistant professor of astrophysics, on the trip to study several pulsating stars related to NASA’s Kepler satellite mission. For seven nights, Barlow and the students stayed awake observing and collecting data with the telescope. Despite weather that kept them from collecting data the first few nights, their hard work paid off in the form of this exciting breakthrough.
“The moment of discovery was quite fulfilling for me. Everything that made possible the discovery of this new pulsating white dwarf was led by students,” says Barlow. “Alan and Eugene were the ones who moved the telescope in place, obtained a series of images over several hours, and analyzed the data with code they themselves had written.”
Barlow adds that his goal in mentoring students is to equip them to make their own discoveries through research. During SuRPS this past summer, Vasquez wrote a Python code that detects small brightness changes in stars by taking a series of images. He and Filik analyzed their data in Chile using this code to find the pulsations in the star.
The Chile trip was made possible in part by funding from HPU’s Student Government Association.
“We are quite grateful that they agreed to fund our trip,” Barlow says. “Between the research experiences Eugene and Alan had and the discovery of the pulsating white dwarf, their investment was well worth it.”