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NASA Grant Benefits Astronomy Students

November 22, 2021

A computer tool created at The College of Idaho to locate and study early star formations has gotten attention up to and including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

You may know it as “NASA.”

Dr. Katie Devine applied for and received a grant from NASA as part of a three-institution grant to develop and test a computer-program tool for measuring celestial features called Yellowballs within the Milky Way galaxy. Yellowballs are star-forming regions within the galaxy. With the help of Aurora Cossairt ’20 and seniors Anupa Poudyal and Makenzie Stapley, the tool was developed to help star-gazers identify and measure these regions.

The tool became the basis of the grant application, which was awarded last spring.

“For NASA, we took this idea and pitched it to them,” Devine said. “They are really trying to increase the number of citizen-science programs available through their platforms and NASA gave us support to develop the tool and then beta-test it with my astronomy students.”

Citizen science, essentially, is any scientific research done outside of the federal realm. In the context of astronomy, it is research being done by entities other than NASA, such as colleges and universities or independent researchers. Devine teamed up with Dr. Charles Kerton at Iowa State University and Dr. Grace Wolfe-Chase at the Planetary Science Institute to pursue the grant, which was used to help finance summer research as well as testing.

Devine says there are 6,000 different examples of Yellowballs in our galaxy alone and roughly 500 have been measured. She says it is easier to teach students how to measure these regions with the tool than it is to automate a computer to be able to identify and measure them by itself, making it a perfect fit for citizen science and astronomy students at the College. The goal is to develop the tool so it can be implemented regularly in classrooms.

“I teach different things than I did five years ago because we’ve got new discoveries, the course material changes all the time,” Devine explained. “So, wouldn’t it be neat to involve students to be on that cutting edge and really show them what being a modern astronomer looks like?”

Being a modern astronomer, as Devine explains it, is much more than looking through telescopes. It includes a lot of data collection and then an examination of that data. The tool, written in the same programming language as YouTube, Instagram, and Google, will help with that.

“It allows the user to manually separate the Yellowball from the background in images taken at four different wavelengths,” explained Stapley, a senior majoring in Math-Physics who has spent many hours with Devine working on the tool. “Then, the program is able to conduct photometry of the Yellowball without the background light sources distorting our results. When you conduct photometry, you measure the color of the light source. In our case, the light source is a Yellowball.”

The grant is the first one Devine has received at the College from NASA. It enables her students to learn science by participating, not just sitting in a classroom.

“People like to be a part of science and it’s really a nice outreach in terms of teaching people about science by letting them do science,” Devine said. “We try to incorporate that whenever possible into our courses.”

The College of Idaho has a 130-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.