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Serendipitous Science

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June 20, 2002

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

Trifid Nebula
Trifid Nebula
Gemini Observatory/GMOS image
Gemini Observatory

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

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

Winning Essays


Trifid Nebula

By Ingrid Braul

My name is Ingrid and I go to Southlands School. I think the Trifid Nebula is the most beautiful thing in the whole universe. It's really pretty with all the colours in it. When I look at it closely, I think of it as a majestic cloud of creation. It makes me think of the beginning of time, and how our solar system started. It's so amazing how just a cluster of gases and dust can cause such bright colours. I learned in science that some bright nebulas are formed when hot gases are thrown off from very hot stars. The radiation of young stars is what gives off the Trifid Nebula's brightness. It's called an emission nebula because of this. I like lots of other nebulas, such as the Crab Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula, but I find that the Trifid Nebula draws me in the most because it's so breath-taking. I'd like to find out how far away the Trifid Nebula is from us, and would really like a wonderful picture of it.



By Harveen Dhaliwal

My favorite object in the night sky is Pluto. I like this planet because it shines like a marble. If I could, I would stand on Pluto and look at all the other planets. However, I would need to wear a lot of warm clothes on this mysterious planet because it is so cold there. Pluto is the ninth planet from the sun. This planet is fascinating and looks beautiful while it is trying to orbit around the sun. Someday I hope to be an astronaut and go to Pluto. 

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

Thecontest was sponsored by Gemini Observatory, the H.R. MacMillan SpaceCentre, the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA) from the NationalResearch Council of Canada, and the University of British Columbia.

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

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

Inthe younger category, Harveen Dhaliwal, a nine-year-old student atHarry Sayers Elementary School in Abbotsford, B.C., won for her essayon Pluto. Thirteen-year-old Ingrid Braul, a seventh-grade student atSouthlands Elementary in Vancouver, won the older category for heressay on the Trifid Nebula.

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

Itwas Ingrid's Trifid Nebula essay which set in motion a series ofserendipitous events resulting in the detailed observation of what isknown 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 andprovide clues on how stars form and evolve. Such jets are produced bygas expelled at speeds of up to 400 kilometers per second during theprocess of star formation.

Dolores Walther, a SystemSupport Associate monitoring the telescope the night the Trifid imagewas taken, said originally the Science Team had scheduled a much lessdetailed scan of the nebula. "By chance the opportunity came up to takean in-depth look," she said.

Gemini Fellow Dr. KathyRoth, the astronomer in charge at the observatory the night of theTrifid imaging, made the decision to switch to a much more detailedstudy of the nebula. "I decided I wanted the data to be scientificallyuseful if at all possible," she said. "And on top of that, later wediscovered we had a software bug in the program which actually gave ustwice as much data as we would normally acquire. So we got a muchdeeper look at the area."

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

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

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

"I think this is a wonderfuloutcome to what started out as a prototype program to bring moreawareness of astronomy into our classrooms," said Dr. Dennis Crabtree,Gemini Office Manager for Canada at the HIA. Crabtree said the contestwas initiated by Dr. Harvey Richer, Gemini Scientist and Professor ofAstronomy at the University of British Columbia.

Richerteamed up with Dr. Peter Newbury, a Lecturer in Astronomy at UBC and anastronomer at the Space Centre where he gives a popular talk on thehistory of astronomy called, "Nightwatch: The Astronomers' Passion."

Thepair designed the contest and then approached the committee responsiblefor determining which scientific proposals from across Canada will beallocated time on Canada's share of observing time at GeminiObservatory.

"We allocated the time for the contestbecause we thought it would be a good way to give something back to thecitizens of Canada," said Dr. Pierre Bastien, Professor of Astronomy atthe University of Montreal and chairman of the eight-person CanadianTime Allocation Committee. "After all, the money to support suchprojects as Gemini comes from the tax payers," he said


Peter Michaud
International Gemini Observatory
Phone: 808/974-2510, 808/987-5876 (Cell)

Dr. Harvey Richer
The University of British Columbia
Phone: 604-822-4134
Dr. Peter Newbury
H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
Phone: 604-738-7827 x 236

Media Image Resources

Trifid Nebula

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Trifid Nebula - Image of the central region of the Trifid Nebula (M20 in the Messier Catalogue) taken by the Gemini North 8-meter Telescope on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, June 5, 2002. Located in the constellation of Sagittarius, the beautiful nebula is a much-photographed, dynamic cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born. One of the massive stars at the nebula's center was born approximately 100,000 years ago. The nebula's distance from the Solar System remains in dispute, but it is generally agreed to be somewhere between 2,200 to 9,000 light years away.

Credit: Gemini Observatory / GMOS Image

Click here for technical details.


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Pluto - Image of Pluto taken by Gemini North 8-meter Telescope on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai, June 5, 2002. Pluto is generally the most distant planet from the Sun (6 billion kilometers from Earth) and is the smallest of the nine major planets in the Solar System - in fact, it is smaller than the Earth's Moon. A strange planet, Pluto's orbit is highly eccentric, sometimes coming closer to the Sun than Neptune. Pluto rotates in the opposite direction from most of the other planets, and the plane of Pluto's equator is at almost right angles to the plane of its orbit. Pluto has one moon, called Charon.

Credit: Gemini Observatory / GMOS Image

Click here for technical details.

Inset - Pluto and moon Charon are shown in this sequence of four infrared images obtained on different nights during June 1999 at Gemini North, utilizing the University of Hawaii's infrared camera QUIRC and adaptive optics (AO) system, Hokupa'a. Charon orbits Pluto every 6.4 days at a distance of 20,000 km. Pluto and Charon rotate synchronously, which means they both keep the same face towards each other at all times.

Credit: Gemini Observatory / University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy Adaptive Optics Group / National Science Foundation

Trifid Nebula with Winners

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Star Talk - Contest winners Harveen Dhaliwal, left, and Ingrid Braul talk to Gemini North Associate Director Dr. Jean-René Roy (whose image is projected above them) via a live teleconference between the Gemini North Base Facility Control Room in Hilo, Hawaii, and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, B.C. In the background is Dr. Harvey Richer, Gemini Scientist for Canada, who initiated the Gemini Observatory essay contest for elementary students throughout British Columbia. (Photo by Kim Stallknecht)

Photo Credit: Gemini Observatory

Winners & Gemini North

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Universal Answers - Dr. Peter Newbury, Astronomer with the H.R. MacMillan Space Center in Vancouver, B.C., watches along with contest winners, nine-year-old Harveen Dhaliwal, left, and Ingrid Braul, 13, as Gemini North Associate Director Dr. Jean-René Roy and Gemini Fellow Dr. Kathy Roth answer questions on astronomy asked by Canadian elementary students before a Vancouver audience of more than 250 students, teachers and parents. The two Gemini Observatory astronomers, whose image from Hawaii is projected in the background, were able to participate in the awards ceremony via a live teleconference. (Photo by Kim Stallknecht)

Photo Credit: Gemini Observatory

Essay Contest Winners

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Stellar Students - Ingrid Braul, left, and Harveen Dhaliwal, stand before a huge image of the Trifid Nebula projected onto the wall of the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre Star Theatre planetarium. The Trifid image was presented to Ingrid by Gemini Observatory for her award-winning essay suggesting why she would like the Gemini North Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to take a closer look at the nebula. Harveen was presented with a Gemini image of Pluto for her essay on the Ninth Planet. (Photo by Kim Stallknecht)

Photo Credit: Gemini Observatory

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