Young stargazers explore new horizons in Astronomy

20 Year-13 students from all over New Zealand delve deeper into astronomy with UC experts, and observe celestial objects through state-of-the-art telescopes.

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Photo by Fraser Gunn

The Elaine P. Snowden Astronomy School is an annual  five-day camp for Year 12 and 13 students interested in studying Astronomy or Physics at university. This year, the programme ran from 13-17 April, with 20 students selected from all over New Zealand. With a mix of seminars and practical work, the students were immersed in various topics in astronomy and physics, at the University of Canterbury’s Mt John Observatory, Tekapo and the Ilam campus.

The Mt John and Tekapo experience

On Day 1, a quick ice-breaking session and lunch got students to know each other before heading out to Tekapo. That night, guided by UC staff at the Mt John Observatory, the students observed a number of celestial objects in great clarity and depth using the 1.0m McLellan and 60cm Optical Craftsmen telescopes. They also made observations using the HERCULES spectrograph designed and built at UC. The highlight of the evening was observing Jupiter and its moons – the students got a good look at its cloud bands and the red spot.

The group visited Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park on Day 2, where DOC ranger Ray Bellringer gave a talk on the geological history of some of the features in the park. The students were also taken on guided walks up to the Tasman and Mueller glaciers, learning about how glaciers have been transforming the landscape. Later that evening, the group made another visit to the Mt John Observatory for more observations of the night sky. The session closed with mugs of hot chocolate and a fascinating talk by UC Erskine visitor Professor Philipp Richter about the formation and lifecycle of galaxies with topical reference to the recent image of the shadow of the black hole.

On the UC campus

The students were back on UC’s Ilam campus from Day 3 onwards, attending a number of talks and a lab session. As the 2019 conference of the New Zealand Institute of Physics was held at UC between 15-17 April, the students were invited to attend a few lectures on the conference programme. This included the keynote presentation by Professor Céline Boehm (University of Sydney, Australia) on great astronomical discoveries, and future frontiers in her research on dark matter; and a public talk by Associate Professor Jenni Adams (UC), who described her work at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, where the capture of neutrinos could help shed light on the origins of cosmic rays.

The group also attended talks by Professor Philipp Richter (University of Potsdam, Germany) on interstellar and intergalactic gaseous matter diffused throughout the universe; Associate Professor Karen Pollard (UC) on using asteroseismology to learn more about the interior structure of stars and their evolution; Dr JJ Eldridge (University of Auckland) on detecting ripples in spacetime due to gravitational waves from massive celestial objects like black holes or neutron stars; and Associate Professor Michael Albrow (UC) on the search for extra-solar planets. A number of UC students also gave presentations on their work and a window into campus life.

In the lab, using galaxy spectra from a computer-simulated view of space as seen by a telescope, the students mapped the large-scale structure of the Universe by calculating the redshift and velocity of galaxies.

Between talks and lab work, the students watched some exciting demonstrations of physics concepts through the thrilling “Bed of Nails” exhibit and an electrifying Van de Graaf generator. On the roof of the Ernest Rutherford building, the students observed the evening sun through solarscopes, watching out for sunspots. The group also had an outing over to Rutherford’s Den in the Christchurch CBD, where they took a guided tour to learn about Ernest Rutherford’s life and work, with a peek into his intriguing lab (“den”).

Building connections

As much as the students were engaged with the lectures, the evenings at the halls provided some much-needed time to relax and bond. Postgraduate students Amber Malpas and Rosemary Dorsey did a wonderful job of setting up a movie night, where the group watched a space movie together – The Martian. On the last night of the School, the students enjoyed a hilarious yet comprehensive quiz evening, with questions that drew on their experience during the camp and proved to be a real highlight and reflection of their time together.

By the end of the programme, the students had developed great connections with each other and with experts in the field, thriving in like-minded company and experiencing the universe through shared moments of wonder and curiosity. See you again Space Legends!