This project should take the place of a Sixth form Physics Practical project. The students could undertake it as a real research project or make it a search for some feature, for example, a new supernova.
The Bradford Robotic Telescope can obtain images of almost any star in the northern sky. For rapid turnaround you will need to check where the stars are during the night to ensure that they can be seen by the telescope during the hours of darkness. The easiest way to do this is to use a programme like Skyglobe which displays the position of stars at any time and place. (Skyglobe is available from the Bradford Engineering in Astronomy Group or from Hensa gopher://micros.hensa.ac.uk:70/11/micros/ibmpc//dos//f/f688) An alternative is to use a Phillips Planisphere for the UK (51½° North) which is available from good bookshops.
The main research function of this telescope is its ability to measure the brightness of an object with great precision, although control via the Internet brings it to your classroom or home.
Some general questions are raised - the same as those at the end of "The Galaxy and the Universe" project in the Nuffield programme for year eleven. A few more specific ideas are indicated, although research is still generally at the stage of looking for particular changes. The observations undertaken by the Hubble Space Telescope provide single images of each star (or distant galaxy). The amateur astronomer can also make significant observations because he or she can observe the same star or cluster over days, weeks or months to determine how they vary or change. It is important to base the observations on some scientific thinking and thus the observations are used to confirm or refute theoretical ideas.
Suggested Topics for Research
Number of stars in a globular cluster (this will entail counting the outer stars then integrating the brightness of the cluster).
The age of clusters in an open cluster (request images through a red filter and blue filter; old stars are red, young ones are blue. See information sheets on "The Galaxy and the Universe" in the Nuffield projects). If the mass distribution of stars is the same in every cluster, old clusters will have more red stars and young ones will have more blue stars. See if you can find any Cepheid variable stars. These have a defined relationship between their absolute brightness and the period of their variability. You will need to take observations over a period of about a month to find Cepheids.
Variable stars (see table of variable stars. Some have regular periods, some are chaotic. There is as yet no model to explain many types of variability but it could be flares, rotation or spots. Choose from the variable stars and obtain a series of images over some days or weeks; (try different filters which will give information on colour (temperature) variability). Always ensure that you compare the brightness of the variable with two or more stars in the same image which you have reason to believe are not variables.
Search for life (choose a star of suitable brightness and look for the eclipsing effect of a planet; you need at least one other star of constant brightness in the image. Request a series of about 5 images over days or weeks). Use the planetary information tables in the Nuffield projects to work out how often a Jupiter sized planet would occult a star and how much the light would be reduced.
Star Spots For our Sun, the more spots the hotter it is; a 1% increase in power output would cause a huge increase in global warming, so we need to understand this. Historically, no spots (called the Maunder minimum) probably caused the mini ice age of the 1600s. A large spot could cause a 1% increase in luminosity. Monitoring a star over a number of days and weeks will show periodic changes which could be related to rotation periods and to the spot, (make sure there is a good comparison star in the image).
Write up your project and send it to the University. If we can we will install it on the Web. Send us details about yourself and your school, if it is a school project. We might be able to put it all up for the world to see.
Taking your research further.
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