Astrophysics: Sometimes Messy, Always Awesome: Jack S’s June 29th Blog

I used to think that doing astronomy was easy. Point a telescope at a cool planet or star or nebula, click the shutter, and admire your crisp, multicolor pictures. Three weeks into SSP, I have been thoroughly disabused of my naive misconceptions. Aperture photometry makes my head spin, spherical vectors have me counting on my fingers, and don’t even get me started on converting from azimuth to right ascension. Conclusion? Astrophysics can be messy. Messy,  perhaps, but way cooler than my younger self could have ever imagined. 

Incidentally, my day, too, had a messy start. I am a runner. I have been fortunate to meet several fellow SSPers who share my love of running and are willing to drag themselves awake early in the morning to run. We leave the dorms at 7:00, jog to Hooker Fields, and run until 7:50. Or at least, we’re supposed to. On the morning in question, I was lying in my bed, dead to the world, at 7:05. I had slept right through my alarm! Luckily, a fellow runner’s call roused me from my slumber. I am quite skilled at being late, so after a mad dash to get dressed and downstairs, we set off for the Fields no later than 7:07. Chapel Hill in the morning is cool and misty, perfect weather for running. 

At 7:55, a refreshing workout under our belts, we headed to the Chase Dining Hall for breakfast. Many UNC SSPers have a complicated relationship with Chase. They find the soggy eggs, crunchy spaghetti, and gritty deli meats off-putting for some reason. Mine, on the other hand, is quite simple. As long as the Chase Dining Hall continues to serve its delicious twice-fried French Toast sticks with copious helpings of syrup for breakfast, I will defend its honor with my life. 

Once we completed our most important meal of the day, we jogged back to the dorms. I believe it is important to have a morning routine. Given the limited time I have between returning from our run and getting to our 9:00 lecture, my routine looks something like this: Brush my teeth, put on socks, and tie my shoes at the same time. Run downstairs from my dorm room, remember backpack, run up to get it and come back down, remember notebooks, run up to get it and come back down, remember calculator… Well, you get the idea. I haven’t been late to a lecture yet, but then again, I haven’t been able to walk to any either.  

Our lectures are in the Phillips Physics Building (exactly 43 seconds away from the dorms when running at top speed). Dr. H gave our morning lecture on the Method of Gauss. This is the third of four lectures on the MoG. The Method of Gauss is the process by which we will be able to translate just three grainy images of our asteroid into a complete orbit model. I find it absolutely fascinating. Basically, we convert the Cartesian Coordinates of our asteroid in our images to Celestial Coordinates using the positions of known background stars.

Notes from the Method of Gauss lecture. 

Our morning lecture usually runs until 12:00, but today our schedule was shifted forward so that we could watch a live press conference from the NANOGrav collaboration at 1:00.

Snacks during a break in lecture.

After a walk through UNC’s verdant quad, we’re back at the Chase Dining Hall for lunch. Lunch is one of the best social experiences at SSP. Our topics of conversation today included the nature of consciousness, the best Harry Potter book, our experiences with religion, the best MarioKart character, CRISPR-Cas9, and which Parks and Rec character is the funniest. Messy, a bit, but awesome.

Lunch at Chase. 

By 1:00 we were all back in Phillips for the virtual conference. NANOGrav is a research group with the goal of measuring gravitational waves, a phenomenon originally predicted by Einstein. Gravitational waves are so weak that many scientists believed they would never be observed. The NANOGrav collaboration overcomes this obstacle by using portions of our galaxy as an enormous telescope. They mobilize radio telescopes to track and link the movement of pulsars bobbing on the fabric of spacetime. The results look quite promising, but this conference was merely a fifteen year report – they have at least another twenty to go. 

Class as the NANOGrav conference began.

Dr. F’s class today was on astrometry. I didn’t even know that astrometry was a word before SSP. Now I know how to catalog and match stars against their backgrounds to determine the right ascension and declination of any celestial object.  

Second lecture ends at 4:30, after which we are free until dinner at 6:00. Now, I would love to tell you about the fun adventures I had between the end of second lecture and dinner. I usually fill the period from 4:30 to 6:00 with Spikeball matches, Wii MarioKart races, and exploratory trips to the three libraries on UNC’s campus.

Just look at these beautiful shelves. There are eight floors of stacks in the Davis Library!

The view from the top of Davis Library is pretty nice too.

Unfortunately, this blog is meant to be an accurate representation of the events of today. Therefore, dear reader, it is with great reluctance, but stolid conviction, that I must tell you that I slept right through the break between second lecture and dinner. I dropped my bookbag in my dorm room at 4:30, sat in my desk chair for just a minute (“a minute, no longer,” I promised myself), and seconds later felt my roommate shame me awake at 5:45 to get ready for dinner. Hey, I had observations tonight. I needed the sleep.

After dinner, we held the first annual TedX SSP talks. Each participant had the opportunity to speak for two minutes about a topic of their choice. I gave my talk about carcinization, the process by which crabs have convergently evolved independently five different times.

After my talk, I had to sprint to my observation session at the Morehead Observatory, just barely making it on time (picking up on a pattern?)

The control computer in the Morehead Observatory. (It’s so cool!) 

Observing is my favorite thing about SSP. My research teammates and I get to run the telescope ourselves to get the data to track our asteroid.

My research team is called the AstroYolks. In order to get one usable science image, we have to take three separate pictures. First we key in the command for our biases, images taken with zero exposure time and the shutter closed (does this still count as a picture?). Biases allow us to subtract dead pixels from our science image. Next we take photos of the blank, illuminated side of the observatory dome. These are called flats: they help us eliminate imperfections caused by dust on the telescope’s mirror. Finally, we get to begin collecting light from our objects. After some coding, we combine our images into a slightly grainy, greyscale picture of dots on a blank canvas. It’s beautiful.  

Tonight we had a joint observation session with Group Seven (name: Shoebill Shenanigans). We are tracking the same asteroid. 

Joint observation session with Group Seven.

As I walked back to the dorms after observing, I thought about tomorrow.  Another packed day. Messy, yes, but absolutely worth it. 

Hello! Thanks for reading my blog. My name is Jack Sullivan. I’m a rising senior from Bethesda, MD. I enjoy running, reading, and hiking in the woods. At school I run on the cross country and track teams, participate in the Engineering Club, and write for my school newspaper. In addition to astrophysics, my central interests are history, philosophy, and language.