Astronomy Student on Team That Discovers Novae

Astronomy Student on Team That Discovers Novae

Undergraduate astrophysics major Samia Bouzid expected a weeklong trip to an Arizona observatory to fortify her classroom knowledge and give her a glimpse into future graduate study.

Her trip accomplished that, of course. It also gave her the opportunity to present research findings at a prestigious astronomical society meeting last month in Seattle.

What she didn’t expect to bring home from her trip, however, was an astronomical discovery.

Samia Bouzid
As part of a summer research program at the University of Notre Dame, the Rutgers junior spent four nights examining a special type of star in the galaxy Andromeda.

Her professor had observing time on the Vatican Observatory’s telescope on Mt. Graham, 70 miles northeast of Tucson, and he took three students along to participate.

The team’s work involved taking hundreds of photographs, all of which they would analyze with computers during the following weeks to learn more about their star’s behavior.

However, during some downtime at the observatory, the professor was comparing images the team had just acquired to previous shots of the same sky segments.

“My professor said, ‘hey, we found a nova!’”

By the time their observing was over, they had actually seen three novae – two that they could claim they discovered, and one that another astronomer spotted earlier that they were able to confirm.

A nova is a star that burns very brightly for a short period of time – months or sometimes years – then fades back into obscurity. While not rare, novae are elusive. Astronomers spot maybe 10 per year in the Milky Way galaxy and 25 in Andromeda.

“You can’t anticipate a nova, you have to just find it,” said Bouzid, a resident of Levittown, Pennsylvania.

“We went to Arizona expecting one thing, but research can be rerouted,” she said. “Finding the novae was a side product. It didn’t derail my research, but it’s not entirely related to it.”

Bouzid’s research focused on something called a cataclysmic variable star, or CV in astronomy lingo. A nova is a type of CV, but there are many other CVs that show subtle and frequent variations in brightness. In particular, the group was trying to determine whether the CV they were examining exhibited regular variations or irregular ones.

Based on the first night’s data, they speculated the star was showing regular, or periodic, oscillations. Considering what they expected to find, that was somewhat surprising. Close examination of the next three nights of data, however, revealed some irregularity – a state known as quasi-periodic oscillation.

Bouzid presented the group’s findings in a poster session at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting January 9-13.

Her summer work was part of a National Science Foundation program called “Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” or REU. The program provides students with hands-on research experience and a stipend.

“I applied to several universities that had REUs,” she said. “I liked this one because I could actually go to an observatory.”

The Vatican Observatory’s Advanced Technology Telescope is one of three instruments at Mt. Graham. The observatory itself dates back to the 18th century and maintains administrative offices at the Pope’s summer residence outside Rome. Increasing light pollution at that site led the observatory to relocate operations to Mt. Graham in 1981.

Bouzid and her Notre Dame professor, Peter Garnavich, along with the other students, Nancy Paul and Colin Littlefield, actually lived in the observatory building while there. It has four bedrooms beneath the domed chamber that houses the 1.8-meter telescope.

“I had to get used to staying up all night,” Bouzid recalls. “We’d sleep into the afternoon, do something like take a hike, then open the dome up again at 7 p.m.” Their location, in the U.S. Forest Service’s Coronado National Forest, was ideal for hiking during those precious few daylight hours of free time.

Bouzid hopes to work at an observatory again this summer, perhaps the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, or the National Science Foundation’s radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Eventually she hopes to work at a place like NASA doing observational astronomy.

Media Contact: Carl Blesch
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