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Bryan Kelly and Dr. Malenda

Bryan Kelly ’20

"Photometric Analysis of Variable Star Systems"

Major: Physics / Mathematics & Computer Science
Hometown: Easton, PA
Project Advisor: Dr. Ruth Malenda

Describe your project.

My project consists of using a process known as photometry, which is comparing relative brightness from one star to another, in order to study different variable star systems. These variable star systems that we studied were exoplanets and eclipsing binaries.  We obtained a list of candidates of exoplanets form two research missions, TESS and KELT, where both have telescopes that take very wide view, low-resolution exposures and compile the candidate list. It is our job to narrow in on the candidates and take higher resolution exposures, usually over the course of a single night, and perform photometry on them to confirm/deny the existence of an exoplanet being present around that given target star. The way it is confirmed/denied is from the photometry a light curve can be plotted of the star, and if there is a significant, constant drop in light that tells us there is an exoplanet in transit of the system. The second variable system of eclipsing binaries were studied over a longer period of time. The analysis process of EB’s is also much longer than processing exoplanet data. You need to take an average of the maximum brightness of the system and subtract it off of the entire data set in order to normalize the brightness over all nights of observing. Then a normalized relative flux light curve can be generated. The times of the different observations also need to be converted to the phase of a singular orbital period, which can be done by subtracting off the known time of a minima of the system (when the primary is eclipsed by the secondary star) and then dividing it by the period of the stars’ orbit. This allows us to generate a single light curve for one full orbital period.

How did your project come about?

Both Dr. Malenda and I do not have much experience in astrophysics research, but both had the chance to take a course offered here at Moravian in Fall 2018. The course was taught by Peter Detterline, and we used a telescope from the Mars Desert Research Station that Moravian partially funded! Dr. Malenda has known Phill Reed from KU and asked to be a part of his team for this past summer and graciously let us.

What’s the best part about working with your faculty mentor? What valuable insights has she brought to your project?

The best part about working with a faculty mentor is to be able to learn all of the tips and tricks they have about research. Even though this is not Dr. Malenda’s area of expertise, she still had much to share on what is the best way to approach certain aspects of the research. This can be something as simple as looking for what type of related articles to read about or more involved such as how to work out the theory/mathematics of obtaining the light curves generated of a single orbital phase for an EB.

What has been your biggest obstacle so far?

Our biggest obstacle for the summer was not being able to use the telescope system until late July due to the dome of the observatory having to be replaced. Due to this, we had been analyzing  older sets of data taken for the past year or so in order to practice the processes. Once everything with the observatory was replaced, we were able to record our own data and analysis accordingly.

What has been your biggest takeaway from this experience?

One of the biggest takeaways from this research experience is that you will always run into issues, whether it be with the experimental setup or not having the mathematics/theory fit your results. I learned it is imperative to be understanding that these issues are inevitable and that you must approach them with a level head to be able to solve them efficiently.

What was the result of your project?

There were many results of my summer project. We have results on concluding exoplanet candidates that will lead into an honors project for this coming academic year, and we also have a publication in the works that outlines the characteristics of the eclipsing binary U-CrB.

Overall, how do you feel about being awarded this opportunity? Why should other students take advantage of the SOAR program at Moravian College?

I am very grateful for having the chance to participate in the SOAR program for the summer. I not only became much closely with a faculty member within my field of study, but also had the chance to become close with faculty members of other disciplines and have very intellectual discussion between other research-minded students. Any student who seek research experience should consider applying for this great opportunity to broaden their horizons.

Do you plan to expand upon your research?

A continuation of this summer’s SOAR research will lead into my honor’s project for this upcoming fall. It will either consist of solely exoplanet research, or EB research, we just have not decided which will be most optimal for observing during the semester. Also, the whole KU team as well as Dr. Malenda and I have just started a document to write an article to have published work with the eclipsing binary system U Coronae Borealis (U-CrB). We are just waiting to do some final color corrections on the data, which is normalizing the data in all filters (visible, blue, red, and infrared).

Any plans to present this research outside the SOAR presentations?

I know that there are chances to be able to present my SOAR work outside of the college and I hopefully plan to be able to do so, such as the Central Pennsylvania meeting of the American Association of Physics Teacher (AAPT) in AprilThe NCUR conference that occurs in the spring is another great example of this and I would love to be able to go on behalf of the college and show my findings!