Student Research Projects


The Our Solar Siblings project materials and associated telescope time are provided for free to interested teachers and students. We are capable of mentoring students for a variety of different research topics in astronomy and are very happy to. The following is a bit of an outline of what is possible and what considerations need to be made in selecting a project. Please let us know if you are interested in doing such a project!

Types of Projects

Variable Stars

A good overview of variable stars is provided by the AAVSO.The types of variable star projects OSS has tended to do are projects involving RR Lyrae stars. These stars tend to pulsate quite quickly, roughly taking half a day to repeat, and are useful to find the distance to things as their pulsation rate is directly related to their actual brightness.

Open Clusters

Much of the OSS Project 3 material has to do with the nature and lives of stars. There are tens of thousands of open clusters in the night sky and each is quite unique and has their own story to tell. Hence, each needs individual exploration to figure out their ages, distances, the amount of intervening gas and the types of stars within the cluster. This provides a very rich exploration of stars from many different perspectives and many have long histories to explore. A search for variable stars in these clusters is also a potential project.

Exoplanet Transit

The Kepler spacecraft mentioned above and the TESS spacecraft were designed to find planets around other stars. TESS, in particular, is designed to find Earth-like planets. Telescopes on the ground, such as what we use, aren’t capable of the precision necessary to see Earth-like planets, but there are large numbers of Jupiter-size planets that can be followed-up after being detected by the TESS or Kepler space missions.

Double Stars

This is something that OSS hasn’t done yet with a student but is a rather straightforward project, a study of a single double star system is probably more suited to shorter research projects rather than a science extension or depth study project just by itself. Although our colleagues generally tend to have bigger ideas that could be explored, such as a survey of many double stars or testing out new double star techniques. If you are interested in these types of stars, we can explore a larger project further, there would be many possibilities.

There are other projects that we are capable of doing that we haven’t trialled with students yet. These include things like tracking a comet or some asteroids and estimating their orbits. While before we said we can’t “do” supernova, we could potentially follow a Supernova (or a number of Supernovae) that were detected by someone else and monitor it/them over the course of a couple of months to classify their type. The universe is full of ideas and the list above is only limited to the ones we have currently thought of.

Those above are the projects that Our Solar Siblings specialises in (stars being ‘Solar Siblings’). We can do most of the technical mentoring for other projects as well. Much of the measurement principles apply to other topics, so we can mentor this part while a scientist oversees the broader topic. For instance, there is a planetary nebulae group at Macquarie University who might want to explore the central stars of planetary nebulae or the astroseismology group at the University of Sydney may like some data on the pulsation rates and types of stars. A list of Australian astronomy research centres is available here . Even if you don’t approach any of the institutions, having a browse around their pages will give you an idea of what type of research Australian astronomers do.

Beyond the scope of the research project, students have published articles and presented posters at conferences (such as https://rtsre.net/ which is in Melbourne at the end of next year)

Limitations

The main limitations and considerations are:

  1. Capacity of the telescopes
  2. The timescale of the study
  3. The randomness of what you would like to study
  4. Too long or steep a learning curve
  5. Suitable mentoring
Read more about the limitations

Books

If you would like a good reference book for astronomy, then there is a gigantic open source (i.e. free), pretty good astronomy textbook available at OpenStax: https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy. There are higher quality, professionally published textbooks around, but they tend to be quite expensive, the most common one being “The Cosmic Perspective” http://www.jeffreybennett.com/books/the-cosmic-perspective/ . You could probably find it easily second-hand on ebay as it is a required textbook for many university undergraduates.

If you would a broad introduction to astronomy, we have collect the ‘best’ astronomy documentaries together into a list (there are plenty of terrible ones, so it is best not just to randomly select astronomy documentaries!)… and by ‘best’ we also mean “enjoyable to watch” as well as being broadly correct. If you would like to get your head around modern astronomy efficiently and pleasurably, these are the documentaries to watch! We can’t provide direct links to the documentaries as they are a moving target….. some of the time they are free on youtube, sometimes they are $3 on youtube, sometimes the whole series is on NetFlix or Stan or iTunes, at worst they are likely available relatively cheaply on DVD or Blu-Ray. While we have copies of them ourselves, we do not have permission to give them out (although we are exploring the possibilities of this!)

Documentaries

Steve and the Stars

There is a lovely 8 minute video about the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) available on youtubeIt presents Steve Lee, who has operated the AAT for four decades. It contains very little content knowledge, it is just a nice warm, well produced, story!

400 Years of the Telescope

A documentary made by PBS for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. It covers a lot of history of the telescope to a depth and relevance to this project not undertaken in any other known documentary. Having said that, it is not a ‘great’ documentary by any means, but is definitely good (in terms of our own opinion, but also internet ratings: 7.2/10 on imbd) and covers the actual content in a very decent manner that no other documentaries seem to do.

Big, Bigger, Biggest: Telescope

We have also found a useful video that outlines the historical increase in the mirror size of telescopes from the series ‘Big, Bigger, Biggest’ created by National Geographic. It also focuses on some of the engineering problems and historical/ cultural contexts that we do not explicitly deal with in the in-class materials. We recommend this for those students who are interested and want to learn more about the modern day engineering side of telescopes.

Colour: The Spectrum of Science

A three-part documentary made by BBC Four that explores some of the interesting phenomena behind colour. The first of the three-part series is the most relevant here. It explores how light is made up of all colours, filters, the colour of the sun, light and energy, the dark lines in the sun’s spectrum, the interaction of sunlight with the earth’s atmosphere, Earth from space, colour illusions caused by the perception of the brain, Gold and its formation in supernovae, meteorites and how ‘white’ isn’t really a colour using salt, clouds, waves and snow as examples.

Horizon: Do you See What I See. Series 2011-2012, Episode 1

An episode of Horizon where the human (and other animal) perception of colour is explored. It is less about the science of light and more about how humans perceive colour. This is more directly relevant to the students’ experience of colour. Apart from a more human-centric summary of colour, it also quite provides a strong backbone to the claim in this project that there is no such thing as “true” colour… all colour images are, to a large extent even in scientific visualisation, subjective representations.

How the Universe Works: Season 1. Episode 3: Galaxies

A very good introduction to galaxies that are initially introduced in Class 4 and form the basic unit of exploration in Class 5 and 6. The episode covers the initial discoveries, formation, evolution, sizes, shapes, type of galaxies. It is quite comprehensive! It also has a good section on the mapping of locations of galaxies to understand the large scale structure such as explored in Class 6, explains why dark matter is important to keep the stars in galaxies bound together and does discuss dark energy lightly as well. Season 1, Episode 1, The Big Bang is also quite good, but it is heavier going being more abstract with more detail than probably necessary for Year 10. Good background for the teacher though or for higher year levels!

Through the Wormhole: Season 1, Episode 8. Beyond the Darkness

A very very good introduction and exploration of dark matter and dark energy. Among the participants are Vera Rubin, the original discoverer of dark matter, and Saul Permutter, one of the 2011 Nobel Prize recipients, just prior (2010) to his receiving it. Covers the content of Class 5, 6 and X in a pleasing, entertaining and efficient manner.

Dancing in the Dark

A documentary from 2015 on trying to detect dark matter on Earth from the BBC. It is quite good and presents the scientists who are scrambling around with the LHC and underground laboratories trying to find the source of dark matter specifically. It also links this search to the large scale universe as well as the instrumentations, images and discoveries in Astronomy that are tied to dark matter. It is dark matter focussed though and gives a minute or two at the end to Dark Energy. Less directly relevant to the content in this project than the Through the Wormhole episode, but interesting to see our Earth-bound attempts to detect dark matter.

The Universe, Season 4, Episode 7: The Search for Cosmic Clusters

This is not a particularly dazzling or exciting hour length episode (it certainly wouldn’t be classified as ‘nail-biting’!) but it does cover much of the material in the early part of this project in a pleasant introductory manner. It would fit very well to be viewed just before or just after Class 1. It does have unique drawcards to Our Solar Siblings in that it relates clusters and stars to their positions in the Milky Way Galaxy as well as dealing with Galaxies, Galaxy Clusters and the large-scale structure of the universe. If Class 4, 5 and/or 6 in the Colour Imaging project were undertaken, this is a very good summary linking concepts strongly between the two Projects.

How the Universe Works, Season 1, Episode 4: Stars

This is a very visually and representationally well done episode. It takes the viewer through all of the basics of stars. It runs through the birth, nature, lives and deaths of stars as well as the production of higher elements within the stars. It also does it in an efficient running time (43 minutes) and ties the astronomical phenomena in the sky to a variety of the scientific attempts “down on Earth” to try to understand this phenomena. It is very good! It would be well placed just prior to the students going into detail about stars in Class X. It could perhaps also act as a final summary to the whole project as it does summarise stars tightly and leaves on a very good note!