Merrin is starting in the fall of 2017 her last year of her B.Sc. in physics at McGill University. She is most excited by space-related physics, mainly cosmology and astrophysics, and intends to pursue graduate school in a related field. During the summer of 2017, she worked with spectroscopic data from the Keck telescope to model the atmospheres of known exoplanets using cross-correlation with the spectra of possible atmospheric molecules, with researchers Jason Rowe and Lauren Weiss. She is very excited to be joining the iREx team and gaining experience with astronomical research and data.
The topic of my project was detecting water in the atmosphere of a specific exoplanet (the first ever discovered around a sun-like start in 1995, 51 Pegasi b) in archival spectra from HIRES, the spectrograph at KECK observatory. Water has been detected previously on the planet, using almost the same methods as ours but with data from a different spectrograph. We are trying to model the star’s light.
The project is interesting because, until I worked on it this Summer, we didn’t know whether it would be possible! The data I am working with was taken to get information about the star’s speed, and the planet’s light has not been resolved in it before; if we succeeded, the old data would be useful for a totally new purpose.
We were able to discover that 51 Pegasi is too bright to resolve the planet’s light this way, but that the method could work for dimmer stars in the archive. Now that we know this, my supervisors might use the method, and my code, to investigate these systems.
This summer, I learned lots of information specific to my project, but I learned a lot more about astronomy in general and about how people on Earth get information about other planets! I now know how science is done in astronomy: that is, where and how researchers get data and what they do with it. I also got to work with data from a real observatory (KECK) and helped make observations at Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic.
My biggest challenge this Summer was working with time constraints. We picked an ambitious project for four months, and I couldn’t do the whole thing perfectly. It was difficult to decide what information we most wanted and how to get that in four months, even if it meant I had less time to improve code.
What I liked most about my internship is that it introduced me to research in the world of astronomy. I also liked that it was independent; although I spent a great deal of time questioning my supervisors, I feel like I was given a project, a data set, a group of experts to ask questions, and set loose! It was a really fun challenge and a great project and I wish I could have spent another four months on it.