Capacity of the telescopes
The telescopes available for education are *relatively* small. They tend to be larger than anything you would find in a typical amateur astronomer’s backyard, but much smaller than the cutting edge telescopes that astronomers use to probe the edges of the universe. A review article about these telescopes is available here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21672857.2017.1303264
If you have a flick through the introduction to telescopes powerpoint (put it on slideshow as there are some animations) you will see the 0.4m LCO telescope compared to other telescopes.
This means that, largely, we are limited to objects that are bright enough to study within these telescopes. This largely means objects within and nearby our own galaxy and in our satellite galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds and our nearest galaxy neighbours, M31 and M33. We can certainly take images and pretty pictures of many galaxies (some student examples are on the colour imaging wall) but they are generally a bit too faint and our ground-based telescopes a bit too blurry due to the atmosphere to do something scientifically rigourous suitable for an extended project.
While that may sound ‘limiting’, there are billions of stars in our galaxy and tens of thousands of known open clusters, planetary nebulae and star forming regions (amongst many other types of object!). There are also just over a hundred giant balls of stars called globular clusters orbiting our galaxy which are fantastic objects for study.
The timescale of the study
As your project will have to be completed within a certain timeframe for your assessment, we can’t undertake projects that require observations over many months or years. This usually rules out some types of stars that vary in brightness over longer periods of time and also some types of stars that move in particular ways over time. Also, the quicker you get your data, the longer you can spend analysing and interpreting it.
The randomness of what you would like to study
Some objects in the night sky are ‘transient’ objects. They happen unexpectedly so cannot be planned for. One example of this is Type Ia Supernovae. These randomly go off in galaxies all around the night sky and are detected by a variety of patrol telescopes around the world (and some in space!). Another example of randomness is “searching” for something. Looking for new exoplanet transits that have not been seen before is like trying to find a needle in a haystack (although following up an exoplanet from TESS or Kepler is entirely possible!). Basically, for your project, you would need to find a topic that would bear fruit rather than have the possibility of failing.
Too long or steep a learning curve
To successfully complete the research project, you will need to learn a sufficient amount about astronomy to do so. Much of this ‘learning’ is done ‘on-the-job’. In fact, that is largely what PhD students and research scientists are doing… cobbling together new research projects by combining older ideas (called “standing on the shoulders of giants”). Basically this means that the project has to be not overly complex and use sufficiently straightforward maths and physics or be able to use software that handles some of the more complex stuff.
Our Solar Siblings has done a lot of different projects and continues to do more new projects. There are some that are tried and true topics. There are many topics though that we do not have the expertise to undertake…. Just because astronomy is a large field and there are many objects to explore and uncover! If you are interested in a particular area of astronomy, then let us know … if we do not feel expert enough, we can find a suitable scientist mentor OR alternatively we are very happy to provide you with telescope time that you can offer to an external mentor. (Telescope time is very precious to astronomers, so being able to say that you have telescope time really helps get a scientist mentor on-board!).