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ING web news release
12 July, 2022

Leiden University Observing Trips to the INT

Since 2008, undergraduate students from Leiden University have been visiting the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) as part of their astronomy bachelor's degree programme. This programme gives students the opportunity to gain valuable experience in the field of observational astronomy. Through this programme they learn how to write a proposal, plan and execute their observations, and acquire the skills to analyse and present their findings.

In March of 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic made observing on-site impossible. Instead, students worked remotely in close collaboration with support astronomers working at the INT. Nine nights of observations were carried out in total by thirteen project groups. Each group chose their own subject, making full use of the capabilities of the INT with the Wide Field Camera (WFC).

The projects covered a wide range of subjects, from measuring the shape of Kuiper belt objects to detecting stars being ripped apart by black holes in so-called tidal disruption events. Some of the results obtained during the observations made on January 23-31, 2021 are highlighted below.

The Leiden students at the Isaac Newton Telescope in 2017. Large format: JPG.

In one project, a group of students investigated different planetary nebulae. These types of nebulae get their name from their resemblance to planetary discs, but are actually the remains of stars that died thousands of years ago. After a star dies, its outer layers are cast off and layers of gas slowly expand into the surrounding medium, creating shock fronts in the process. These shocks were investigated by the students by comparing the relative brightness of the interiors of planetary nebulae in different narrowband filters.

The planetary nebula PK 164+31.1 observed with [OIII], Hα, and [SII] filters. Large format: JPG.

Another group of students focused on locating star formation regions in nearby galaxies. Galaxies are home to billions of stars, mainly scattered throughout their central bulge and spiral arms. These stars are formed inside giant clouds of gas and dust which collapse due to gravitational pressure. This project made use of the WFC Hα narrowband filter since Hα emission is an indication of ionised hydrogen gas, produced due to the heating of the surrounding gas by the newly formed star.

The galaxy NGC 925 observed with B and r filters. Large format: JPG.

The famous Horsehead Nebula was also studied by one of the groups. This nebula is part of a star-forming region in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It is visible to us as a dark silhouette as it absorbs the light emitted by stars and gas in the background. Using the reddening of this light from the background stars, some students were able to construct a map of the hydrogen density in this region.

The Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) observed with B, g, and r filters. Large format: JPG.

Overall, the students learned a lot from their research projects and from each other as each project came with its own unique challenges. Next years students are already looking forward to their chance to take part in this programme with the hopes that they will be able to observe in person again. The enthusiasm and science results of the students highlight the importance of the Isaac Newton Telescope for training the next generation of astronomers.

The Leiden students at the Isaac Newton Telescope in 2017. Large format: JPG.


Reinout van Weeren (Leiden University, The Netherlands)

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Last modified: 12 July 2022