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To Mauna Kea and Beyond

WISE participant Amanda Day goes to Hawaii to study planet-forming material at a NASA observatory.

Date: 8/3/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Mike Sitko
It wasn’t much of a vacation, what with the 12-hour shift requirements and the temperature hovering around freezing. But Amanda Day, a rising junior in astrophysics, loved her week-long trip to Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Amanda Day.
Day spent a week in Hawaii atop Mauna Kea, a summit that hosts the world's largest astronomical observatory.

Day, on the journey with Physics Professor Mike Sitko as a participant in UC’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, spent the majority of her time on the Hawaiian summit observing the structure and chemistry of planet-building disks that surround young stars.

“I was constantly excited,” Day says, referring to her many toothy grins in photos taken of her during the week. “As part of the WISE program, I was able to see what it’s like to be an observer. And,” she adds with a laugh, “seeing myself as a scientist is kind of cool.”

The work is part of a $335,000 grant awarded to Sitko from NASA on his proposal, “Structure and Chemistry of Planet-Building Disks: A Synoptic Study.” Sitko and his team utilized the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), a 3-meter telescope optimized for infrared observations, to study the material that builds planets.

“Most of these very young stars have disks of material around them gradually feeding into the star,” Sitko explains. “What we’re trying to do is make an assay of what kind of materials are in these disks and what the structures are like.”

Mauna Kea is a key location to do this, he says, because the mountaintops have an altitude of 14,000 feet—high enough to minimize atmosphere, pollution and cloud cover for cleaner, clearer images.

Aside from space, the location gives the highest quality images possible, Sitko continues.

Amanda Day and Mike Sitko.
Day and Sitko, back at UC, analyze and interpet the data collected from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility.

Though they had to work such long shifts, the observers altered tasks to keep awake at night, Day says. Her responsibilities included keeping a log book, guiding the telescope to make sure images were centered for optimum data collection, and running the computer that collected the data.

“It’s never boring, that’s for sure,” she says.

Along with a firsthand glance at the life of an observer, Day ranks networking with astrophysicists and NASA employees as a key motivator to continue in the field; she hopes to attain astrophysics degrees at the masters and PhD levels.

Now that Day and Sitko are back on campus, they are dedicating their time to analyzing all the data they collected while in Hawaii. At the end of the summer, she’ll present her research as part of the WISE program.

Even better, Sitko hopes to have publishable results by the time she presents her findings. Day will even have the recognition of being a co-author on the publication—a feat not many students can accomplish in their undergraduate careers.

“I think it’s a very interesting project,” she says, mentioning her desire to continue working on the project and with Sitko even after the summer is over. “It was quite the learning experience.”

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