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March 11, 1997

Four UW undergraduates take to the skies by doing research with one of the world’s most advanced telescopes

Katheryn (Katy) Foreman of Portland, Ore., started as a Spanish language major, and now plans a career in radio astronomy. Scott Sullivan of Tacoma began as an electrical engineering major, and now hopes astronomy will prepare him for entry into NASA’s astronaut-training program. Jeffrey (Jeff) Balsley of Issaquah, Wash., was a percussionist studying music, and now his aim is to teach astrophysics. And Marcus Wright of Stanwood, Wash., has traded in his ambition to become a computer scientist, for a future in astronomy.

All of these undergraduates clearly have been influenced by their University of Washington education in astronomy. And today they will get a rare hands-on look at the life of a real astronomer. From their UW classroom they will be using one of the world’s largest university- owned telescopes, the 3.5 meter-mirror telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains. The three-year-old, $11 million instrument was the world’s first large, remote-controlled, ground-based telescope.

How unusual is it for such young students (they are all double physics/astronomy majors) to operate such a technically advanced device? Normally, observation using a large telescope comes in the third or fourth year of graduate school. Even the students’ professor, Bruce Balick, didn’t get such experience until his second year of graduate school. “This is hands-on stuff I have never been exposed to,” says Balsley. “It’s fantastic.”

For Balick and his students in Astronomy 422 this is what education at its best is all about: an interaction between research and instruction that enables undergraduates to really find out if they enjoy science. In Balick’s words: “Getting this sort of experience this early motivates students and astronomers alike. And it helps students make informed career decisions, as well as feel they are becoming part of a community.”

The four students didn’t find out that they would be using the Apache Point telescope until after the class had started in January. The telescope, which is owned and operated by five universities including the UW, is heavily booked. In order not to disrupt on-going research, Balick chose to confine the project to twilight hours, when it is just dark enough to make out objects in the heavens, but not dark enough for advanced research.

The project assigned was the study of dying stars — their structure and their electrically charged fields — by capturing images through different filters. Three of the students chose to observe old stars in our galaxy that have started to cool down. Balsley selected a star system in another galaxy, but was unable to locate the coordinates, so instead chose the Crab Nebula, a stellar explosion, or supernova, first recorded in 1054. “The students chose the objects themselves, my role was to nudge rather than to lead,” says Balick.

The undergraduates are using a newly installed imaging camera on the Apache Point telescope that was custom-built at the UW astronomy department. The camera’s electronic devices convert light into electrons and are sensitive enough to discern the changes in light levels on the basis on a single electron — akin to detecting a lighted match in New York City. The telescope and its camera are accessible through the Internet, where calibration data is entered to direct the telescope to an object’s location in the sky.

Each image comes back over the Internet as a series of a million numbers. The students then have to “decode” the data and align many images in order to make a single color image. Only then can they decipher the scientific data.. “There is an enormous amount of raw data to manipulate,” says Balick. “The students work together to get to the science — this is real collaborative research.”

Foreman, 21, whose mother lives in Battle Ground, Wash., says the four are working together “really effectively.” She came to the UW four years ago planning to major in Spanish language, but fairly quickly realized that she wasn’t challenged. After taking a 100 astronomy course, she decided to switch. The physics, she admits, are difficult, “but the astronomy part makes it worth it.” Eventually she hopes to study radio astronomy in graduate school.

Another kind of career in the skies awaits Sullivan, 21, who has been accepted by the U.S. Air Force flight school — a “life-long dream,” he says. Training begins after he graduates from the UW in June. Sullivan’s parents now live in Spokane.

The hardest part of using the telescope, says Sullivan, is learning to cope with the computer software. “There is a lot of trial and error and a pretty tough learning curve,” he says. Despite the endless hours spent learning the computer language, he says he has been stimulated by the discovery that “this is what real research is like.”

Balsley, 23, says his introduction to astronomy came 10 years ago when he read theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” When he injured his hand and decided he could no longer play percussion instruments, he quite naturally turned to astronomy.

“This is where true learning takes place,” he says, “getting coordinates, doing research, calculating things — the stuff you normally don’t get in class.” Balsley, a senior who expects to graduate next spring, is so convinced of the value of this training that he has applied to four major U.S. observatories for a summer job.

Wright, 21, probably has the most practical experience of the four. He began in computer sciences, has taken advanced programming and spent last summer using the UW’s 30-inch Manastash Ridge telescope in central Washington.

After graduating next year he plans to take a couple of years off, then apply to graduate school to study astronomy. “Science is so much more enjoyable when you are actually doing it instead of just studying theory,” he says. “You take more pride in it. It’s more yours than is the case with theory.”

The students all voice gratitude to Balick for enabling them to gain the experience of hands-on science. Says Wright: “This telescope is really amazing. It’s a huge step up from the one I was using last summer.”

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Bruce Balick, professor of astronomy, is at (206) 543-7683, or balick@astro.washingto n.edu

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