Peering into the night sky

RIT students have the opportunity to explore the Final Frontier from Earth

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A. Sue Weisler

Astronomers are a hard-working set, but they can’t see through clouds. RIT students Stephanie Dymek, left, and Billy Vazquez, not pictured, found that out first-hand when they accompanied physics professor Michael Richmond, right, to the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona for six nights. Poor weather left the astronomers one clear night and two half nights to use the WIYN 0.9-meter observatory.

Stephanie Dymek has loved the night sky for as long as she can remember. The second-year physics major is on the cusp of deciding whether her fascination could translate into a career in astronomy.

Likewise, Billy Vazquez has studied the sky for more than 20 years. He recalls the day his grandmother took him to the planetarium in New York City and bought him a small telescope from the museum gift shop. The toy-sized telescope Vazquez carried home with him to Manati, Puerto Rico, would foreshadow the professional instrument in his backyard observatory in Webster, N.Y.

Dymek and Vazquez spent Nov. 8–14 with physics professor Michael Richmond at Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Arizona desert outside of Tucson. They are the second pair of students to use the WIYN 0.9-meter observatory since RIT joined a consortium of universities in 2010 that shares time on the telescope. RIT’s Department of Physics, the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, and the Astrophysical Sciences and Technology program support the partnership, which gives students and faculty six nights of observing time per year.

Richmond sought a time-share opportunity on a telescope that would fit the needs of RIT’s students. Although the WIYN Observatory is one of the smaller telescopes at Kitt Peak and cannot collect enough light to see the most distant objects at the edge of the universe, it is ideal for observations of relatively bright objects—asteroids within our solar system, for example, and the stars and nebulae inside the Milky Way and nearby galaxies—and for giving students hands-on experience collecting their own astronomical data. Many scientists today routinely work with measurements downloaded from archives instead of collecting the data themselves from ground-based telescopes, Richmond notes.

“If you have never made those measurements yourself, you might not be aware of their limitations and the mistakes that can creep into them,” Richmond says. “I think it is important that students can go to a big observatory and use a telescope themselves. I worry about a generation of scientists that are so disconnected from the process of making measurements that they don’t know about possible mistakes or biases in the measurements. It would be very bad to have scientists who believe that anything they find on the Web must be correct.”

As representatives of that next generation of scientists, Dymek and Vazquez understand Richmond’s concerns.

Dymek, from Hubbardston, Mass., is currently processing data she collected at Kitt Peak to measure the brightness of eclipsing binary stars.

“Having the opportunity as an undergraduate student to do real astronomical research is the best way for me to experience what it would be like to be an astrophysicist and to get a sense of what it is like to observe astronomical phenomena in today’s technological world,” she says.

“Observation relies heavily on computers to operate the telescope, digital cameras to gather data and computer programs to analyze and organize the data when you’re done observing. I wanted to see what it was like.”

As a returning student, Vazquez’s successful career in software development fits seamlessly with his pursuit of master’s and doctoral degrees in the astrophysical science and technology program. He makes observations from his personal telescope and reduces his own data with programming code he writes to meet his needs.

At Kitt Peak, Vazquez tracked the transit, or movement, of exoplanets—planets outside of our solar system—in front of their host stars. He measured the brightness of the stars the planets orbit using a telescope three times larger than his own in Webster. He is trying to understand how gravity works beyond our solar system and has focused on exoplanets that form elliptical orbits—like Mercury—around their sun-like stars.

“When the planet goes across the star it dims the light by a little bit,” Vazquez says. “That dip in the light is what we measure, and if that dip appears periodically, then we know that there is something crossing the star. If it is less than 1 percent, it is most likely a planet. Anything greater than 1 percent and it could be another star or a brown dwarf. Follow-up observations would be required to confirm its type.”

Vazquez and Valerie Rapson, a graduate student in the astrophysical sciences and technology program from Greece, N.Y., who went to Kitt Peak last year, are starting an exoplanet project under Richmond. Exoplanets are a hot trend in astronomical research and the graduate students want to confirm the existence of candidates the Kepler Spacecraft has identified on its mission to find habitable planets.

“If there are planets out there, the open question is, is there life out there?” Vazquez asks.

Access to RIT’s telescope time-share is open yearly to undergraduate students in the Department of Physics and the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, and graduate students in the Astrophysical Sciences and Technology program. The application process will begin in February for the next observing run. Contact Richmond at for more information.