Searching for Supernovae

Sitting outside Cafe Gato Rojo on a chilly Monday night, Nina L. Hooper ’16 couldn’t help but contrast the light-polluted Cambridge night sky to what she observed in Arizona over spring break.

“Because you’re up on a mountain, the sky starts right in the horizon. You don’t have anything blocking you. You really have 180 degrees of sky. It’s much, much darker, and a lot brighter, so you realize how many stars there really are,” Hooper said.

Hooper is one of numerous undergraduates in Astronomy 100: “Methods of Observational Astronomy,” who went on the Department of Astronomy’s annual spring break trip to the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona.

The trip, which is an optional part of Astronomy 100, allows undergraduate students to work with Harvard Astronomy’s Supernova Forensics group to identify and learn more about the nature of supernovae, or stellar explosions. But more than supplementing students’ academic material, the course’s unique spring break trip gives students a glimpse into the lives of professional astronomers.

“It was exciting to have a very hands-on astronomy experience,” said Hooper, who plans to concentrate in astrophysics. “It was a cool experience to get a taste of what it might be like to be a real astronomer.”


From the moment that they embark on the five-day trip, students are treated as fellow researchers responsible for doing fieldwork and gathering data.

Assistant professor of astronomy Alicia M. Soderberg, who taught Astro 100 last year, said that her students’ main responsibility during the spring break project was to help verify and classify any potential supernovae that might have been discovered.

“Part of the Astro 100 program is the opportunity to classify new supernova, and you just have to hope that there are going to be new supernova to classify,” said Soderberg, who led the 2012 spring break excursion.

Going down a list of objects that they were given to observe, Astro 100 students who went on the trip last year were able to verify the identity of a supernova within a few hours after its discovery.

A year later, Astro 100 students who went on the 2013 spring break trip continued with the previous group’s observations and found that the 2012 supernova, classified as SN2012au, was still shining brightly.

“We had instruments to know what type of supernova it is and whether or not it’s a supernova,” said Nuseir Yassin ’14, who was one of 14 students—out of the 17 enrolled in the class—who participated in this year’s spring break project.

Yassin said that the students collected and diffused light from certain celestial objects and used the resulting data to classify supernovae.

“Until someone does what the Astro 100 students did, it doesn’t get called a supernova,” said Maria R. Drout, a current teaching fellow for the course who helped lead the 2013 spring break trip. “All the time, amateurs and other people find things in the sky that they think are supernova...the only way you can know for sure is by taking a spectra of it.”