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Seeing Stars: Physics/Math Students Taking Part in Binary Star Research Project

L-R: Keith Goodale, Ian Ross, Andrew Penfield, Cory Boule’, Trisha Braught,...
L-R: Keith Goodale, Ian Ross, Andrew Penfield, Cory Boule’, Trisha Braught, Katelyn Andrews, Ryan Walsh, and Steve Harfenist.

They might’ve been wishing upon a star and hoping their dreams for a successful semester would come true, but members of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) at Keene State College were also looking up at the sky and calculating the distance between stars as part of the Binary Star Research Project this fall.

Throughout the semester, the SPS students took part in several star observations on campus and at Otter Brook Dam in Keene, setting up a telescope and collecting valuable data about binary stars—a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around a common center of mass.

“It was a great experience,” said Ryan Walsh, a senior math/physics major from Dublin, NH, who is president of the Society of Physics Students. “It allowed us to do practical data gathering, follow good research techniques, and help produce something for publication.”

“I learned a lot,” added Katelyn Andrews, a junior math/physics major from Marlborough, NH, and vice-president of SPS. “I honestly didn’t know what the Little Dipper or the North Star were until I started working on this project. It was very interesting.”

The idea to get involved in the project came from Keith Goodale ’99, an adjunct professor in the Physics Department, who along with KSC Assistant Professor of Physics Steve Harfenist attended the Stellafane Convention—one of the oldest and largest conventions of amateur telescope makers in the world—last July in Springfield, VT. One of the workshops at the convention was about the Binary Star Research Project. The full-day workshop featured presentations by some of the world’s best astronomers from Mt. Palomar Observatory to the Naval Research Observatory, with one talk in particular that spoke to the accessibility of this work to amateurs.

Goodale said he’s been aware of the project for quite some time and thought it would be a great activity for students. “They get to be published and see some cool stuff in the night sky as well,” said Goodale. “There’s an element of fun and an element of seriousness when we’re doing real science."

According to Goodale, binary stars change positions over time, and the Washington Double Star Catalog attempts to keep records of the positions of these stars current. With so many stars it’s an enormous task, and not many people are helping to collect the data. “They are dying for people to take on this project, so I talked to Steve in the spring about setting up to make some of these measurements with some of the students,” said Goodale.

Begin pull-quote…They get to be published and see some cool stuff in the night sky as well. There’s an element of fun and an element of seriousness when we’re doing real science. …end pull-quote
– Keith Goodale ’99

Harfenist said he got a great response when he presented the project to the SPS students. “We had seven students enrolled in our special topics course that covers the research we are doing, and I think it’s been eye-opening for them,” said Harfenist, who has been at Keene State for six years.

Before doing the measurements, the telescope, a 9.25-inch Schmidt–Cassegrain, must be set up properly, with one axis parallel to the earth’s axis. “It usually takes over an hour to set it up accurately enough so the computer (in the telescope) can take over,” said Goodale. “Once it does, it works like magic.”

How are the measurements done? “On one level it is a very simple principle, but in practice and actually making the measurements it is extremely difficult,” says Goodale.

Without getting too technical, Harfenist said there are three ways to do the measurements, which involve calculating the star separation and measuring its orientation with respect to some known position in the sky. Because of the ambient light in Keene, most of the measuring took place at Otter Brook.

Although the students initially collected data on 30 stars, they submitted just three binary systems for validation and eventual publication. After the data is analyzed and accepted, it will replace the measurements done in 2013. Goodale says the students won’t find out about the acceptance until late spring or summer. If accepted, the data will be published in the Journal of Double Star Observation and then can be submitted to the Washington Double Star Catalog.

Physics and Music

Harfenist, who has taught every course in the curriculum except two, doesn’t just use astronomy to keep his students fascinated with physics and math. He also teaches a popular class entitled The Physics of Music—an upper-level interdisciplinary course that combines physics and musical sounds.

For Harfenist, who minored in music and plays classical guitar, it’s a way to bring two of his biggest passions to the classroom. “It’s so rich—there’s so much there. The history, how scales work, how sound travels and interacts with physical systems—it combines so much, and I think it’s a good way for a student who isn’t a science major to see a lot of that,” he said.

Harfenist and Goodale, as well as Dr. Sarah McGregor, an astronomer who lectures in the Physics Department, attempt to spread their affinity for astronomy by hosting public observation sessions throughout the semester to give students and the Keene State community an opportunity to gaze up to the sky and learn about the planets, stars, and constellations.

Harfenist, Goodale, and the SPS students will continue doing measurements for the Binary Star research project. “We’re going to continue right along,” he said. “We expect to up the difficulty level and change some of the things we are looking at. We’re gearing up for long-term projects that we hope the students find interesting.”