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Serendipitous Science

June 20, 2002

Serendipitous Science

What began as an essay contest in British Columbia, Canada to encourage an interest in astronomy for elementary school students has resulted in spectacular images and scientific data that may warrant possible follow-up observations.

A thirteen-year-old Vancouver, girl's proposal to take a picture of the Trifid Nebula by the Gemini Observatory is prompting a closer look at this star-forming region.

The girl's proposal was one of two winning essays in a contest called "The Sky's the Limit."

The two winners were honored at a presentation ceremony on Thursday, June 20, at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver.

The contest was sponsored by Gemini Observatory, the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA) from the National Research Council of Canada, and the University of British Columbia.

Gemini Observatory is a cooperative partnership between seven countries Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

Elementary school students throughout British Columbia were encouraged to submit proposals to the Canadian Gemini Scientist at UBC with the assistance and cooperation of the Space Centre. The students described why they would like Gemini Observatory to image a heavenly object of their choice.

In the younger category, Harveen Dhaliwal, a nine-year-old student at Harry Sayers Elementary School in Abbotsford, B.C., won for her essay on Pluto. Thirteen year old Ingrid Braul, a seventh grade student at Southlands Elementary in Vancouver, won the older category for her essay on the Trifid Nebula.

Both winners received framed posters featuring high-quality images of their essay choices taken especially for them by the Gemini Observatory, whose twin,8-meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile are two of the largest in the world. Additionally, the winners and their classmates were treated to a day of activities at the Space Centre, which features exhibits and activities in the fields of earth and space science, and astronomy.

It was Ingrid's Trifid Nebula essay which set in motion a series of serendipitous events resulting in the detailed observation of what is known technically as a Herbig-Haro jet, within the Trifid Nebula. Herbig-Haro jets, or HH jets as they are generally known, are linear,high-velocity jet-like expulsions associated with very young stars and provide clues on how stars form and evolve. Such jets are produced by gas expelled at speeds of up to 400 kilometers per second during the process of star formation.

Dolores Walther, a System Support Associate monitoring the telescope the night the Trifid image was taken, said originally the Science Team had scheduled a much less detailed scan of the nebula. "By chance the opportunity came up to take an in-depth look," she said.

Gemini Fellow Dr. Kathy Roth, the astronomer in charge at the observatory the night of the Trifid imaging, made the decision to switch to a much more detailed study of the nebula. "I decided I wanted the data to be scientifically useful if at all possible," she said. "And on top of that, later we discovered we had a software bug in the program which actually gave us twice as much data as we would normally acquire. So we got a much deeper look at the area."

"When I saw this data coming through, immediately I said, wow, that's interesting," said Gemini Astronomer Dr. Colin Aspin who reviewed the Trifid imaging. "Even though this HH jet is already known, the clarity and depth of the Gemini image makes this a very exciting image."

Aspin's field of special interest is the study of stellar evolution. "Based on the information in this data, I definitely plan to follow up on this one."

The data were then processed by the Canadian Gemini Office of HIA, who support the Gemini telescopes' operations for Canadian astronomers.

"I think this is a wonderful outcome to what started out as a prototype program to bring more awareness of astronomy into our classrooms," said Dr. Dennis Crabtree, Gemini Office Manager for Canada at the HIA. Crabtree said the contest was initiated by Dr. Harvey Richer, Gemini Scientist and Professor of Astronomy at the University of British Columbia.

Richer teamed up with Dr. Peter Newbury, a Lecturer in Astronomy at UBC and an astronomer at the Space Centre where he gives a popular talk on the history of astronomy called, "Night watch: The Astronomers' Passion."

The pair designed the contest and then approached the committee responsible for determining which scientific proposals from across Canada will be allocated time on Canada's share of observing time at Gemini Observatory.

"We allocated the time for the contest because we thought it would be a good way to give something back to the citizens of Canada," said Dr. Pierre Bastien, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Montreal and chairman of the eight-person Canadian Time Allocation Committee. "After all, the money to support such projects as Gemini comes from the taxpayers," he said.