HPU Students Analyze Data from NASA Satellite

Earlier this semester, High Point University students in a modern astrophysics class taught by Dr. Brad Barlow, associate professor of astrophysics and director of the Culp Planetarium, met to analyze data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).


After the COVID-19 pandemic began, Barlow’s students met virtually to continue discussions of their research.

HIGH POINT, N.C., May 5, 2020 – A group of High Point University students received an out-of-this-world experience by collecting and analyzing data from a NASA satellite. Using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), students observed new variable stars, which play a crucial role in understanding the universe. 

As part of a project in their modern astrophysics class, taught by Dr. Brad Barlow, associate professor of astrophysics and director of the Culp Planetarium, each student was assigned 40 candidate variable stars to analyze using TESS. Last fall, Barlow was awarded a grant from NASA to conduct this research with his students.

The students wrote code that allowed them to download and view raw data from NASA’s database. Using that data, the students then wrote another code to plot light curves, which show the brightness of stars over a period of time, so they could look for periodic changes to see if their targets are real variables. If a new variable star is identified, the students run a more detailed, quantitative analysis on the light curve to determine the period of the variation, strength and other properties. 

“The aspect of this project I love most is that it isn’t something designed specifically for classroom instruction; it’s simply pure astronomy research,” said Barlow. “It’s no different than what professional astronomers are actually doing every day. The students are gaining practical skills in data analysis, but also the joy of discovering something for the first time themselves. Instead of talking with my students about how astronomers do research, they’re conducting the research themselves.”

Isaac Parker, a rising junior majoring in physics with minors in math and computer science, has been invested in the project since the fall semester.

“This opportunity has prepared me for further research in both undergraduate and graduate levels, and has rekindled my love for the stars and my thirst for knowledge,” said Parker.

The group is planning to publish their findings later this summer.

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