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Student research leads to accreditation of Georgia College Pohl Observatory

 

Through the night sky you can get a glimpse of far-off planets, stars and even other galaxies at the Pohl Observatory atop Herty Hall.

Two undergraduate physics majors spent countless hours during the last few months capturing photos of the heavens through the observatory’s high-powered telescope. Thanks to their work and analysis, the observatory is now accredited by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC). Located at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, MPC is the official organization that computes, publicizes and catalogs the data concerning asteroids, known as minor planets, comets and irregular natural satellites.

“Basically this project used the telescope to prove to the Minor Planet Center that our telescope is capable of tracking objects accurately,” said junior physics major Joey Ronca.

Ronca and senior physics major Ben Crawley spent their independent research credit hours taking multiple photos of asteroids as they moved across the night sky. Once they submitted that data to the Minor Planet Center, it was compared to the center’s data for accuracy.

“The quickest and most efficient way is with asteroids because they’re near home and move a lot. For us, it became a process of finding asteroids with the right magnitude and luminosity,” said Crawley. “We would track the asteroids over a two to three day period. It sounds simple. You take picture of asteroids for a couple of days, get the data and send it in, but there are so many obstacles to overcome.”

The designation marks the Pohl Observatory as a trusted site, which means it is able to gather precise measurements, known as astrometry, to update the position and brightness of known and newly discovered asteroids and comets. 

Under the supervision of Dr. Donovan Domingue, professor of physics and astronomy, the students captured images of four minor planets at six positions. The observations took place in November 2014, and the observatory received its accreditation in January 2015. 

“This accreditation means that we can publish our data and research, and if we do, then the astronomical community knows that our telescope is capable of doing what we are saying it is doing,” said Ronca. “It definitely puts some ethos behind us and our studies. Also it means that the Minor Planet Center can ask us to observe a certain object and help them collect data— we can have a lasting impact on the astronomy community.”

Both researchers credit the opportunities offered through the Georgia College Department of Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy with helping this tackle this project.

“The care for students here is so far and above any school I’ve seen or visited. Faculty try to actively get you integrated into participation into their program” said Crawley. “I feel honored and proud that we got to help get this place accredited. Hopefully more and more people will see the astronomy program and realize that this has something to offer.”

“The reason why I chose GC was because of the access to research that I had here,” said Ronca. “That’s what made the school stand out for me. I knew I would be able to do research, but I had no idea I would be able to take part in something as important as getting accredited.”

With a bright future ahead of them, Ronca and Crawley both plan to attend graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. after they graduate.

“I want to teach and research at the college level,” said Ronca. “This type of work is what I want to do.”

For Crawley, the plans include possibly expanding the horizons for resource use on earth. “I would like to start looking at SpaceX, Boeing or NASA to help plan missions to asteroids to mine minerals,” said Crawley. “I would love to play a hand in making this jump from mining earth to mining the heavens.”

For more information on the astronomy program, visit http://www.gcsu.edu/chemphys/.

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