South students, teacher working on project with NASA

Rick Wagner • Aug 28, 2013 at 10:58 PM

KINGSPORT — Four Sullivan South High School students interested in science and a South teacher are helping NASA probe the size of the universe.

The South folks are working with students and teachers from three other high schools on the project, with assistance from the California Institute of Technology

The research is for a NASA-funded program called NITARP, which stands for NASA/Infrared Processing and Analysis Center Teacher Archive Research Project.

The NITARP website is http://nitarp.ipac.caltech.edu/.

“This program involves having students and their teachers work together as part of a research team on a particular project,” South chemistry, astronomy and German teacher Tom Rutherford said in an email explaining the project.

“Our project is an attempt to find a good correlation between the colors of active galactic nuclei (AGN) and their true brightness,” said Rutherford, who has taught for 24 years. “This has a lot of applications from determining the size of the universe and the cosmic distance scale. The program is being directed by astronomers from Cal Tech and JPL.”

JPL is short for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech.

The South students are Matthew Boyd, Luke Hiester, Peyton Nanney and Wes Cox.

“I’ve never done anything astronomy related before,” Wes said.

After high school, he said he plans to get an undergraduate degree in chemistry and go to medical school to become a physician.

“It was really interesting seeing an astronomer (at Cal Tech) talk to you about how he does his job,” said Peyton, who added that he became interested in astronomy through reading science fiction. He said he plans to seek a college degree in physics.

“The main thing I’ve learned from this is how much information there is out there waiting to be processed,” said Luke, who plans to seek a college degree in computer science.

“Space is, of course, infinite,” Matthew said. “Since it is infinite, it’s the same way with the information.”

His plan is to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist and eventually maybe an anesthesiologist.

During a recent interview of Rutherford and the students in his classroom, the group looked over PowerPoint presentations on some of the data, which uses the red shift in light to help determine distances of the active galactic nuclei. The AGNs are just down in intensity from quasars, and Rutherford said the difference is mostly the angle at which the objects are viewed.

The classification of the objects are type 1 Seyfert galaxies, which are not quite as bright as quasars. In their centers, these Seyferts have a black hole, and as matter is drawn into the black hole it produces light, especially in the blue spectrum.

He showed a linear graph the students have made, one of 570 that eventually will be made and then overlaid as part of the research. All told, the students and teachers are tracking almost 1,900 Seyferts.

The four students, all 17-year-old seniors, began on the project last year after Rutherford attended a January meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

Wes and Peyton went with Rutherford to Cal Tech in mid-July, while Luke and Matthew will go to Washington in January to help present the group’s findings and conclusions at another American Astronomical Society meeting.

“This program wanted students who were juniors to start with because of the duration of it,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford knew all the students from class except Peyton.

The group is using data collected by the GALEX satellite and the Sloan Telescope in New Mexico in its research.

“We are still working on getting our data reduced,” Rutherford said.

“The students will present the research,” Rutherford said. “As teachers, we have to present on educational aspects.”

The students and teacher keep in touch by email and telephone calls. Although the project has been extracurricular, Rutherford said he is working to see if the four students can get high school or other academic credit for their research work.

Rutherford said that he has overseen student research at South in the past, but that this is the most impressive project he has been involved with to date.

“We’re looking very far back in time,” Rutherford said of light traveling from billions of light years away. Using scientific techniques and knowledge of what the color of light and speed means, he said the group is more or less looking at how large the universe is.

Wes and Peyton spent five days in California with Rutherford and teachers and students from schools in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

The travel, lodging and food expenses for all were paid by NASA and will be for the January trip, too, Rutherford said.

Aside from being at Cal Tech most days from 9 a.m. to after 5 p.m., the group got to do some sightseeing, including a visit to Hollywood and Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Santa Monica Pier. Wes had been to the West Coast before and seen the Pacific Ocean, but Peyton and Rutherford had not.

“You can probably tell from the way I talked at school, I really enjoy this project. I have guided student research before, but that’s what it was — student research,” Rutherford said in a follow-up email. “This time, the teachers are part of the project, not just administrators of what the students are doing. We are all part of a team, and each of us has responsibilities toward getting the project finished. Also, I get to work with three other teachers who are interested in doing the sorts of things that I am interested in. I am really happy to be associated with them. All of the students were likewise a really great group and were really nice to be around.”

Also, Rutherford has applied to be a mentor teacher for next year and return to the program.

“But it certainly may not happen. There are about four times as many applicants as there are positions,” Rutherford said.

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