HIGH POINT, N.C., June 27, 2018 – Two High Point University physics students have returned from Chile with an unprecedented experience under their belt and plans to publish their finding in a peer-reviewed publication.
Rising seniors Thomas Boudreaux and Kyle Corcoran joined Dr. Brad Barlow, assistant professor of astrophysics, on his fourth trip with HPU students to the Andes Mountains to observe stars with the CTIO/SMARTS 0.9-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, one of the most well-known observing sites for professional astronomers in the world.
HPU is a primary member of the SMARTS Telescope Consortium, a network of U.S. universities, including Yale, Georgia State University and others, that maintains and operates four research-grade telescopes on Cerro Tololo in Chile.
While at the observatory, they worked with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to observe pulsating white dwarfs, which are dead, remnant stars that show variable brightness due to vibrations. The pulsations are useful in helping determine important properties of the star, such as mass, radius, temperature and density.
Applying data from Gaia, a spacecraft recently launched by the European Space Agency, and combining it with code written by Corcoran himself, the group was able to identify eight new pulsating white dwarfs. Soon, the group will submit their highly efficient method of finding pulsators for publication in a peer-reviewed astrophysics journal.
“After dreaming about going to Chile for so long, I could never have guessed what an amazing experience it would actually be,” says Corcoran. “We had views of the Andes Mountains and southern night sky that were more stunning than any picture you could ever look up. Every night at the telescope was a rush of excitement while we made observations and waited for our code to show us what we found. We worked hard, had some good luck, and even if we hadn’t found anything, our time there would still be my favorite experience during my time at HPU.”
“We discovered more new variable stars during this past research trip than I had in my entire career up to date,” says Barlow. “Even more rewarding to me than the thrill of our scientific discoveries was seeing the excitement on my students’ faces each time they processed a new batch of data and saw evidence of pulsations. Discovering something new in the universe using data you’ve taken yourself using a telescope under your control is an indescribable feeling. Seeing their reaction reminded me of why I entered the astronomy business in the first place.”