St. Olaf News

 

Student studies star systems as part of NSF research program

Eric Topel '15 sits on the 2.3-meter telescope at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory on Mt. Jelm. Topel is spending time at the facility as part of an NSF research program.

Eric Topel ’15 sits on the 2.3-meter telescope at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory on Mt. Jelm. Topel is spending time at the facility as part of an NSF research program.

St. Olaf College student Eric Topel ’15 is working with student researchers from across the country this summer to survey the sky for binary star systems.

Topel was selected to participate in a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the University of Wyoming. He is one of six undergraduate students selected from more than 200 applicants to participate in the 10-week program. The team will present its research on binary star systems at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., in January.

In the past, researchers at the University of Wyoming looked at galactic evolution, or how galaxies form and change over time.

“This summer we’re focusing more on stellar evolution — the formation, lifespan, and death of individual stars,” says Topel, a physics and mathematics major.

Topel and his fellow researchers will ask themselves several questions: How big are these stars? What are their companions like? How fast are they orbiting each other?

This essential data is used to form theories and predict the number of explosive events — like supernova and gamma ray bursts — that may occur. The University of Wyoming is using an NSF grant to form small cohorts of students each summer to focus on a small part of galactic evolution.

“Many of the stars we see in the sky are actually two stars orbiting each other too close for even large telescopes to tell them apart,” Topel explains. His research group will be using spectroscopy — taking light from the system and splitting it into a range of colors — to find these systems since stars have a characteristic set of dark lines and occur at a specific set wavelengths of light.

In addition to research, the students will attend seminars on research projects, graduate school applications, and scientific ethics.

The team will also have the chance to observe at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory. The facility has a telescope with a primary mirror 2.3 meters wide that is located on Mt. Jelm near Laramie.

“Few REUs come with the opportunity to do that kind of observing, and I’d say that’s what I’m most excited about in this program,” Topel says.