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Hilo Students Observe Comet Break-up with Gemini

May 17, 2006

A new educational outreach program at Gemini Observatory is pairing local sudents with astronomers to do cutting-edge astronomy with an 8-meter telescope.

The first observations from this program were executed early on the morning of May 13 when three Hilo High School students observed the disintegrating comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, and observed the comet in both visible and infrared light. The observations show the classic “head and tail” of the comet as well as multiple pieces of the comet’s body breaking off.

 

Left:Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 as imaged by Gemini North in the mid-infrared using the MICHELLE mid-infrared spectroscope. These data were obtained on the morning of May 13 (HST) as part of the Gemini student observation program for Hawai‘i Island students as described in this story.

Right:Gemini's Head of Science, Dr. Jean-René Roy looks on as Ken Oyadomari, Keane Nakatsu, Nick Higa and Gemini astronomer Dr. Scott Fisher (foreground to background) collect comet data at the Gemini North control room in Hilo.

“As a pilot project we are beyond thrilled that this worked as well as it did,” said Gemini’s Head of Science, Dr. Jean-René Roy. “These students are extremely engaged in the process. I expect we’ll see them back at Gemini someday as professional astronomers!”

Hilo High School student Nicholas Higa and classmates Keane Nakatsu and Ken Oyadomari began working with Gemini astronomer Scott Fisher in March, 2006 when it was first announced that Gemini would be offering this unique opportunity for local students. “We looked at a whole bunch of possible things to observe, including exploding stars but once we saw that this comet was behaving so strangely it was obvious what we should observe,” said Higa.

“We have already done a preliminary reduction of this data,” said Dr. Fisher. “Now it is up to the students to work with us to do the final, more detailed reduction of the data and determine exactly how the nucleus is breaking apart. We will also find out how warm the dust in the tail is and we may even be able to tell how much dust is being released in the disintegration.” The observations have already been sent to the International Astronomical Union Bulletin service and will likely be included in work by other astronomers studying the comet around the world.

“Needless to say, this opportunity is unique for our local students,” said Hilo High Science Teacher Kristine Hayashi. “This is going to make a killer science fair project!” Hayashi was Higa's 8th grade science teacher.

The Gemini student observation team celebrate after obtaining excellent data (shown on screen in background) on comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 using the Gemini North 8-meter telescope.

Gemini’s local student observation program will be offered annually for Hawaii Island students and is expected to expand to the Gemini South telescope in Chile in 2007. Selection of student teams is based upon merit and teacher references. Students and teachers interested in participating in this program in the future should contact Janice Harvey at (808) 974-2603 (jharvey@gemini.edu)