Andover Students Conducted Research With NASA at Caltech Observatory

Four Andover students spent a week stargazing this past summer–not on a beach but in a laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In July, Claire Carroll ’14, James Falese ’14, Emily Field ’13 and John French ’13 traveled with Caroline Odden, Instructor in Astronomy and Physics, to Caltech, where they identified a mysterious cluster of 300 blue objects in space as a common stretch of stars.

The group worked with David Ciardi, a research astronomer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Exoplanet Science Institute at the Caltech-based Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC).

“For me, this [discovery] was one of the best moments of the week [at Caltech], because it demonstrated what authentic science research is like. Scientists always have expectations about how the research might turn out, but things rarely go according to the plan,” said Odden.

The students were able to classify the unknown objects by comparing graphs of their luminosities to those of existing stars and nebulae.

“The first day [at Caltech] was devoted to sorting these objects into groups based on the shapes of the graphs. This was a satisfying and exciting process, as none of us knew what the outcome would be,” said Odden.

The students have been conducting the research with Odden as part of the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (NITARP), which teams educators with professional astronomers.

Odden and the students began their research last winter at the observatory of the Gelb Science Center.

Beginning in January, Odden met every Sunday with Carroll, Falese, Field and French and 15 other students. Odden selected the four to continue the group’s research at Caltech based on their experience and contributions in the weekly meetings.

Caltech provided the students with access to professional telescopes, including the 60-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory outside of Los Angeles.

“We ended up getting to look at some really awesome objects, like planetary nebula that are too dim to see with [the 16-inch Gelb] telescope and double stars. We were observing until about midnight, and it was super fun,” said Falese.

Carroll said, “It was exciting to be working with actual astronomers who helped guide us through the [research] process. We also collaborated with students around the country, and it was a lot of fun working with them.”

In addition to conducting research, the four students toured the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A highlight of their visit was seeing a full-scale model of the Mars Curiosity Rover, according to French.

Last winter, NASA selected Odden along with five other educators to participate in NITARP. The six teachers were encouraged to involve students in their research and will present their findings to the NASA team in January, according to a previous article in The Phillipian.

The mysterious cluster of blue objects that Odden and her students studied was originally spotted by the Kepler Satellite, which was sent into orbit in 2009.

Odden said that she hopes to collaborate with Ciardi on more projects in the future. “I’m very interested in finding [more] ways to provide Phillips Academy students with authentic research experiences,” she said. “Dr. Ciardi and I are planning to continue to work together, and we hope to find a project that will involve the Phillips Academy Observatory.”

At Odden’s request, Ciardi came to Andover on September 17 to present his own research on the possibility of extraterrestrial life on planets beyond the solar system.