PHYS 4080 excursion to Mt Kent Observatory

20 Nov 2020

On Thursday 15th October the honours students from PHYS4080 Frontiers in Astrophysics, along with Dr Sarah Sweet, Professor Tamara Davis, Associate Professor Holger Baumgardt, and PhD students Ellen Leitinger and Liana Rauf, embarked on a field trip to visit USQ's Mt Kent Observatory. Just south of Toowoomba, this site has several robotic telescopes that can track space junk, observe magnetic fields in stars, and (most importantly for this project) detect exoplanets.

The excursion was an overnight observing trip, where students learnt how to observe a planet orbiting a distant star. They were able to access images of a new exoplanet candidate, and then analysed and “discovered” this exoplanet on their own, a truly exciting thing for an undergrad student to do! Collage of photos taken on excursion

Learning how to acquire and process real astrophysical data, which is a vital skill in an astronomer's toolkit, was an invaluable outcome of this trip. The data students obtained formed the basis for their course project designed by Dr Sarah Sweet.

Through the shared experience of travelling to a telescope and observing late into the night the UQ students developed a stronger connection and sense of a cohort community. It also built a wider network with other Queensland astrophysics students, particularly the astrophysics PhD students from University of Southern Queensland that the students got to meet during this trip. In addition they got to witness how successful collaboration with international bodies can work, by observing a telescope run by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR; the German equivalent of NASA) to track space junk from Queensland.

The students had a great time and were inspired by the activity. Some exclaimed that they had never seen the night sky so dark; most had never seen the Magellanic Clouds (the two small galaxies currently colliding with the Milky Way, which are about the size of your palm when held at arm’s length and can be seen with the naked eye on a dark night). Actually doing observations, rather than hearing about them in a classroom, gave the students a much deeper understanding of the process, and this project gave UQ students this experience for the first time.