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The Renovated Observatory Makes NASA Collaboration Possible

NASA’s TESS Mission was the main motivating factor in renovating the Thacher observatory on a short time-scale. The effort has paid off; Dr. Swift was accepted into the program and Thacher astronomy students will soon be helping the TESS team identify some of the exoplanet systems nearest to Earth.
When Thacher seniors Piper and Colin applied for membership to a NASA working group, its leader at first offered unfettered approval. That was before the program director realized that these were high school students, not college post-grads. Since this was to be a multi-year program, NASA needed partners who could follow through for the duration. Ultimately, the director asked Dr. Swift to apply.

The program in question is called the TESS Follow-up Observing Program. TESS is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, an MIT-led NASA mission to spend two years discovering transiting exoplanets by an all-sky survey. The TESS Science Office is run by MIT and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In layman’s terms, TESS is looking for planets orbiting nearby stars by trying to identify dips in the light from stars as the exoplanets eclipse them. Colin explained, “The comparison is—you’re looking at a firefly flying across a spotlight that’s two miles away. There’s no way you are ever going to see the firefly, but you can see how the spotlight is dimmed by the firefly.” That dimming is often less than one percent of the stars brightness, which can also be caused by imperfections in the telescope’s optics. So, Piper and Colin have pioneered a method to correct for those imperfections. “We call it the Rotating Flat Field Method,” said Piper.

“This is really exciting for us, because nobody has ever developed a system to fully account for these imperfections. Historically, the best observatories just buy a better mirror that is closer to perfect. Our method accounts for any level of imperfection,” said Colin. The two are currently drafting a paper about their method, for publication in an astronomical journal. Once the software can be distributed, any observatory, no matter the level of professionalism, can also use their method.

When asked about patents or software copyrights, Piper said, “Astronomy is the type of field where you feed off of each other’s ideas. I think it’s cool enough to have our names on the paper that people will reference for years.” Colin agreed, “The point is to just get the software out there, because it’s a collaborative community.”

The two noted that collaboration within the Thacher community made their developments possible. Colin clarified, “We are the ones talking to NASA and making these cool light curves, but all the foundational work was done by other groups.” “Like, George ’19 and Julien ’19 did all the coding for how we took the rotated flats initially,” said Piper. “They are the foundation for what we did. Yao ’19 and Alejandro ’19 did lots of work making sure that the photometry calibration code was working properly. They did endless tests on this one tiny piece of coding, making sure it worked really well.”

What will Thacher do as a partner in the TESS Follow-up Observing Program? TESS is looking at the night sky in sectors. From it’s observations, NASA will identify potential locations of exoplanets. Thacher will be asked to track one or more of the related stars over a longer period of time to verify the presence of an eclipsing exoplanet. Currently, TESS is surveying the Southern Hemisphere and won’t move to the Northern Hemisphere until after Piper and Colin graduate. The work of students in the future will build on what these seniors have accomplished. “They serve as the primary mentors for a group of younger students who will be taking over the TESS collaboration next year,” said Dr. Swift. “And they have been exemplary role models.”

He is excited to include this partnership in Thacher’s astronomy curriculum, “The ability to tie together our curriculum with important scientific work at the frontier of astrophysics is priceless, and the student experience is powerful, authentic, and somewhat of a paradigm shift.” He added, “Although there is no way to assign a single grade that accurately reflects the progress that Piper and Colin have made this year, the number and quality of hard and soft skills they have been able to build in taking on this new research will pay off for them the rest of their lives—and that is much better than a grade, anyway.”
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