Dark Skies, Bright Minds

Photo: Two high school GBO scientists present their findings at Great Basin National Park to the audience who attended the Great Basin Observatory 5th Anniversary celebration. Gretchen Baker

In humanity’s earliest records of astronomy, it was unanimously agreed among scientists and religious scholars alike that the Earth was the center of the known universe. The Earth was the singular point about which all heavenly bodies circled. Then, during the 16th and 17th century, a scientific revolution began to take place. Many of the notions of the way the universe works became challenged or proven incorrect.

One of the great challenges was to the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe. Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, based on his own observations and previous theories of the motion of the heavens, developed his now famed Heliocentric model of the solar system. Helios- meaning “sun” and centric- meaning “center”, his model posited that the center of the solar system was the sun, and that was the point at which the solar system orbits.

As early astronomers started to train their telescopes to other stars in the cosmos, it became apparent that there was not a universal rule that only one star had to be the center of a solar system.

Double stars were discovered!

Some stars are so close to each other in our field of view that they appear as one point of light, but with a telescope we can define two separate points of light. This is what has been traditionally termed a “double star”. We now know that some of these double (and even triple) star systems are gravitationally bound to each other- circling each other as the planets in our solar system circle the sun. While others only appear to be related. They appear next to each other in the sky, but one star can be a few light years away from the Earth and the other hundreds of light years away. As they are in the same slice of sky- in our field of view- they appear to us to be double star systems, but in actuality they are not influenced by one another at all.

On the other hand, a double star systems that is found to be gravitationally bound is termed a binary star system. This is when two stars orbit each other around a central point of mass, these stars are physically bound to each other by gravity. It is estimated that half of the stars in the milky way are binary star systems, even though only 5% of the stars that we have observed are binary.

So how do we know whether a point of light is an optical double star or a true binary star system? That question poses a great opportunity for university students and astronomers to test their observational and analytical skills to decipher the difference.

Binary star systems present a fascinating area of research and the questions that we can ask about them are as profound as the universe itself. Sometimes these systems can rip each other apart, and sometimes they never interact. They can even be the center of their own solar systems with orbiting planets around them. There is still so much to learn about double star, binary star, and trinary star systems- first being whether they are gravitationally bound or only associated through appearance.

In the last few years, many high school and undergraduate college students have used the Great Basin Observatory to explore if double or triple stars systems are actually gravitationally bound. They start by identifying the system they will study, then they compare images taken of the system to historical data, chart the stars motion, and determine if the stars only appear to be associated, or are actually interacting with each other and are gravitationally bound.

A common reflection from our high school groups, is that the project tests their determination and ability to stick with it when the going gets tough. Southern Utah University's Dr. Cameron Pace, who has mentored all of our pre-college students thus far relates, “A grit attitude is a difficult skill that is very transferrable. Students learn about their personal grit and learn to grow this quality in this project. Determination will help them with whatever college path or career choice they chose.”

As a high school student from Cedar City, Utah related, “I found that it was a lot more of an arduous and difficult process than I expected, but it was a worthwhile process because it taught me a lot about hard work and sticking to something. It also taught me a lot about working in a team and getting through a difficult project as a team.”

High school students also relate that the project helps them feel more respect for science in general. “I respect people doing science a lot more now. Now I understand the tremendous hard work that goes into research and writing scientific papers.”

Of course, the project isn’t only an exercise in hard work, but a way to get involved in astronomy and science on a deep and meaningful level. High school students comment that they learned a great deal about astronomical terms, stars, using computers to make charts and analyze data, and writing in an entirely new way- scientific writing.

“I’m grateful that we got to have this experience. I even learned that I might want to go into scientific writing. The fact that I’m going to be a published author at 16 is an awesome experience.”

“I will definitely be taking astronomy classes in college, even though I’m more interested in more creative disciplines, I really want to learn more about the stars.”

The Great Basin Observatory which is a project of Great Basin National Park Foundation is located in Great Basin National Park under the darkest skies in the contiguous United States. The GBO is operated through a partnership with three universities- Concordia University, Irvine; University of Nevada, Reno; and Southern Utah University.

This spring (2022) our first middle school group- a class from White Pine Middle School, located in Ely, just an hour distance from Great Basin National Park, entered the quest to define and categorize double stars using the GBO. These stellar students will be coming to visit the GBO in person on June 1.

Now that’s what we call dark skies, bright minds!