This summer I had the opportunity to work with Nathan Whitsett, a former Summit graduate who is now in the Physics Department at Washington University in St. Louis. Nathan is affiliated with the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in North Carolina and was able to obtain permission for me to collect data remotely using one of their radio telescopes. At PARI, there are two telescopes, one twelve meters, which I used, and one twenty-six meters, which is used for more in-depth data.
These large Radio telescopes detect radio waves between 3 m and 30 m in size coming from celestial bodies. Radio waves are the longest wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio astronomy can be used to characterize galaxies, planets being born, supernovas and supernova remnants using neutral Hydrogen emissions.
I chose to analyze two different Supernovae Remnants (SNRs) in the Milky Way galaxy to gather data about how fast they are moving. SNR is the structure that results from the explosion of a star in a supernova. Studying SNR allow us to calculate their age and understand how they contribute to planet formation and distribution of heavy elements throughout the galaxy. The SNRs emit radio waves around a base frequency of 1420 MHz. By measuring how far away from that center frequency the SNR is, I can calculate how fast it’s moving, and if it is moving towards or away from us. The 12m telescope scans for radio waves in a small range around 1420 MHz, and the further away my value is from 1420 MHz, the faster the SNR is moving. There were thousands of data points and multiple scans of both objects, but each had a clear frequency peak near 1420 MHz, making it much easier to determine their velocities. Amazingly, I did all of this from the comfort of my room, as all the features of the telescope were accessible from my computer. While there were some unexpected changes in my plans this summer, I was still able to successfully complete research on exactly what I had wanted to explore.
Sean LaMacchia is a senior in The Summit Country Day School’s Science Research Institute.