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C of I prof, students research star formation

June 10, 2015

When College of Idaho physics professor Dr. Katie Devine gets up at 2 a.m., the only other beings awake are of the celestial variety—the man in the moon watching overhead, stars shining and winking from their cosmic homestead. But that is exactly who she’s come to see.

Dressed in her pajamas, Devine logs into the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia remotely from her computer in Idaho. Using computer codes to control the position of the telescope across the night’s sky, Devine points it at galactic gas bubbles in the Milky Way, some 10-15 thousand light-years away.

“It’s always my greatest fear that my Wifi will drop at 2 in the morning,” Devine said.

The Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully moveable radio telescope. Devine uses the telescope to look at emissions of molecules at the edge of star-forming gas bubbles in an effort to research and understand the origins of stars.

The telescope is one big dish—100-meter diameter collecting area to be exact—and it collects information like a camera, but one pixel at a time. Devine has to point it to different areas in space to get all the pixels of information.

But since the radio telescope is only taking in light signals, there is not pretty picture to see like when Galileo stared upon the rings of Saturn. Instead, the radio signals received are put into a spectrometer and are separated out into different wavelengths. Those different wavelengths show emission lines that reveal which molecules are at the edge of these bubbles.

“It’s really interesting,” said Johanna Mori, a C of I sophomore working with Devine as a research assistant this summer. “The fact that it happens at 2 in the morning is slightly less fun.”

The first time Mori watched the telescope sweep across the sky and collect emission lines, as she and her fellow students gathered around the Boone Table, it was new and exciting.

“It was really interesting to see all of that information come in and see science really happening,” she said.

Over the summer, Mori will help Devine analyze the data collected. She’ll be writing computer codes to compress the data into a usable form, or codes to correct for atmospheric variables in the data because conditions such as the amount of water in the atmosphere can affect how the telescope works. That information will help Devine write a research paper on the star forming environments within several bubbles as determined by the emission lines they detect.

Mori, a math-physics major, doesn’t know if she’ll pursue a career in astronomy. But right now, she’s enjoying the chance to take her knowledge from the classroom and apply it to the universe around us.

“I’m studying something thousands of light-years away in Caldwell, Idaho, through a telescope that is in West Virginia,” Mori said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars and 14 Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College’s beautiful, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.