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Searching for Supernovae

By Bharath Venkatesh, Contributing Writer

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.”


The classification of SN2012au, a massive star that exploded 75 million years ago, revealed a connection between supernovae of a standard level of brightness and a group of so-called ‘super-luminous’ supernovae that are being discovered.

“A supernova like this one is starting to show us that perhaps there are deep connections between different kinds of supernova that have not been appreciated before,” said associate professor of astronomy Edo Berger, who is currently the head professor for Astro 100 and who led this year’s spring break trip. “It’s kind of like a missing link.”

In addition to continuing with data collection on SN2012au, students on this year’s trip also identified a new supernova. Berger said he hopes that this supernova, classified as 2013at, will lead to a tradition of discovering new supernovae every year.

“It seems like an annual thing,” said Rachel L. Jiang ’13, who felt that the 2013 trip greatly enhanced her experience in Astro 100. “I just had this sense of appreciation...I appreciated the class a lot more.”


Students echoed Jiang’s sentiments about the spring break aspect of Astro 100, which they said demonstrates the Astronomy department’s strong commitment to undergraduate education.

“It was nice because you can go from learning concepts straight out of the textbook to actually seeing them,” said Missy McIntosh ’16, who plans to concentrate in Astrophysics. “I really enjoy the real world part of it because when you go [to the observatory] you don’t just sit and work on a p-set.”

McIntosh said that this aspect of the trip made Astro 100 stand out from other classes that did not incorporate as much hands-on fieldwork.

“This is like ‘take this class and see what your job would be like,’” said McIntosh. “It was much more like trying out a career than trying out a class.”

Students said that they felt that the spring break trip represents a unique opportunity for undergraduates.

“[The trip] made me realize how many resources the Astro department was devoting to us,” said Jiang, who is pursuing a secondary field in Astrophysics.

Future astrophysics concentrator Ana-Maria Constantin ‘16 emphasized this strength of the Astrophysics department, which she said was the best of its kind in the United States.

“I don’t think there’s a field in astronomy that isn’t covered by astronomers at Harvard...Harvard has it all,” Constantin said.

She went on to compare Astro 100 to the popular Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” course, stating that the former deserves to be just as popular as the latter.

“People are always talking about how great CS50, which is very popular and everyone talks about it,” Constantin said, hinting that Astro 100 is more of a hidden gem among undergraduate courses.

Hooper contrasted Astro 100’s annual enrollment in past years, which hovered at around 4 to 5 students, to this year, in which 17 students are taking the class.

“Every year, more students are taking the class,” said Constantin. “That’s a good thing because more and more people are starting to be interested in astronomy.”

Hooper said that increased interest in Astro 100 and the unique benefits offered through the course’s spring break trip could result in continued growth for the Astrophysics concentration.’

“I think it has so much positive feedback that more and more students are taking [Astro 100],” Hooper said. “I think it’s a class at Harvard that convinces people to concentrate in Astro.”

Hooper said that she hopes that she and her colleagues in Astro 100 will contribute to the growing student interest in the course.

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