Thursday, July 18, 2013

Launch Pad workshop: Day 3

Last night we returned to the dorms about midnight, and I was too tired to do much of anything but pass out in bed. After almost nine hours of sleep, I'm feeling a little more up for blogging about the day's events. Day 3 is the day when I was really cursing myself for (a) forgetting my camera and (b) not owning a smartphone -- because the photo opportunities were too good to pass up.

After breakfast again at the Turtle Rock Café, we started class at 10 a.m. The topic: binary stars and exoplanets. We learned about the qualities of binary stars and how astronomers find exoplants around stars too far away to see with telesecopes. I didn't take as many notes as I did on Day 2, but here are some of the highlights:
  1. 50 to 80 percent of bright stars are binary systems.
  2. We find exoplants by using the Kepler telescope to look for changes in the spectrum as a planet passes in front of its star. The amount of light our instruments pick up from the star drops a tiny amount.
  3. Scientists have found 3,000 confirmed or candidate exoplanets, and more than 300 of those are Earth-sized planets. We think there are 1 billion terrestrial planets in the Milky Way.
  4. A next steps? Mapping those Earth-like planets for habitability, and finding exomoons.
We then spent an hour examining data from Kepler looking for planets ourselves, and I think I could have done that all day. I should mention that one of us found what looked unmistakably like a planet, and maybe more than one around a single star.

In the afternoon, we spent two hours learning about the qualities of stars: how we measure distance, mass, temperature, radius and luminosity. Some of this went a bit over my head; I'm going to blame it on exhaustion.

And then last night, we piled into SUVs and vans and drove up a mountain to WIRO: the University of Wyoming Infrared Observatory. It's a really big telescope. This is when I wished I had a camera, but I'm sure some of my fellow attendees are posting photos online that I can link to later.

I rode up with Mike Brotherton, one of our instructors and the man behind Launch Pad, and two other attendees. The road up is dirt, one lane, twisty and frequently drops down a cliff on one side. You also have to watch out for wildlife; a deer ran right in front of us. The altitude on the mountain is about 2,000 feet higher than Laramie. Thankfully I've had no issues with altitude since I've been here, and I didn't last night, either. (Mike says it's typical for a Launch Pad attendee to end up in the emergency room.)

We spent a couple of hours at the observatory watching two undergrad students operate the telescope and do their research. Both students are here for the summer. They sleep during the day and work at WIRO at night in three- or four-day shifts. WIRO was built in 1977, and the age shows a bit, though everything there works beautifully. The telescope itself is covered with bits of duct tape.

We got back to the dorms at midnight, exhausted but happy.

This morning, we're going to start the day with a hike, and I need to get ready to go.

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