Sam and telescope

When six-foot Sam Schonfeld ’12 stands beside the Hiltner telescope in the Kitt Peak National Observatory, he’s dwarfed but not intimidated by the towering apparatus.

Schonfeld and Becky Nevin ’13 spent the first week of classes – Aug. 29 - Sept. 5 – a thousand miles southeast of campus in the Arizona desert. The two were working with Assistant Professor of Astronomy Nathaniel Paust ’98 to study globular clusters.

Getting the telescope time was a big deal, and the data will be used for Sam’s thesis with very good chances that we’ll then be able to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal,” Paust said.

The telescope’s nearly eight-foot mirror is roughly six times larger in diameter than the 16-inch telescope at Whitman. The stars that this telescope can capture are 36 times more faint than those glimpsed through a telescope from Walla Walla wheat fields, and about 10 billion times more faint than can be seen with the naked eye.

The telescope, which is partially owned by Dartmouth University, was made available to the Whitman students through a connection with the professor’s former advisor.

Globular clusters are dense groupings of tiny, ancient stars. A typical cluster stretches some 25 light years across and contains 100,000 to one million stars. 

 “They’re some of the very oldest things in the universe,” Paust said. “We think the galaxy formed 13 billion years ago, and the individual stars in these clusters are somewhere between 10 and 12 billion years old. By finding the ages of these things, we can tell something about when the galaxy actually formed.”

Their work looking up at the sky turned the students’ schedules upside down.

“We had to be up all night, and sleep all day,” Schonfeld said. Nevin and Schonfeld woke around 2 p.m. After a few hours of calibrating the equipment, the students began to take pictures, observing from sunset at around 7 p.m. until sunrise around 4 a.m. on nights when the weather permitted.

Paust was impressed by the students’ ability to independently work with the telescope. “On one night I was responsible for another telescope and I gave them the list of things that they needed to do, and checked up on them occasionally. They were always on top of things and are completely responsible for the quality of the data.”

The team struggled to collect data under stormy weather conditions. Although the week offered only about 10 hours in which weather conditions were clear enough to use the telescope, the students remained undaunted.

“Sometimes, when the weather was just a little cloudy, we would go outside and look up at the stars we could see – it was just amazing, because you could see so many more stars than you can even from the wheat fields in Walla Walla. I’ve never been on a trip like this before,” Schonfeld said.

This also was Paust’s first trip with Whitman students; he hopes to return to Arizona, as well as applying to Chile in spring 2012.

“Going on this trip with Whitman students makes me all the more impressed with them,” Paust said. “I praise the adaptability of Whitman students.”

“I really enjoy working with Nathaniel, both on this particular project and in general.  He's very helpful and we have a good working relationship,” Schonfeld said. “It really was an amazing undergraduate experience.”

Lightning Lightning strikes a telescope at the observatory
At the computers Sam and Becky, together with a student from Dartmouth College, at the computers that control the telescope.

The public is invited to an astronomy department open house scheduled for Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. Visitors will be able to use Whitman telescopes on the roof, see the planetarium, and hear a short talk about astronomy. Contact Nathaniel Paust at paustne@whitman.edu.

--Eleanor Ellis '13

Photo credits: Nathaniel Paust.