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Sample projects

Here are a few ideas for projects, to help you get started and to give you some feeling for the size and scope appropriate for this class.

Determine the rotation period of an asteroid
We know surprisingly little about the great majority of asteroids in our solar system. For example, we have measured the rotation periods of only a few hundred. You can find a list of known (and unknown) properties of the brighter asteroids at Note the "reliability code" in this table. Note also the large number of asteroids which do not appear -- that means their rotational properties are completely unknown.

A good place to go for more information, and for hints on good targets, is

Depending on the particular asteroid chosen, this project would probably require 10-20 hours of measurements spread over 3-5 nights. It might be a good choice for a group project involving 2-4 students.

Measure the period of a variable star
Many stars vary in brightness, for several reasons: due to eclipses in a binary star system, or pulsations in the stellar atmosphere, or the motion of dark spots as a star rotates, etc. Measuring the exact period and amplitude of a star's light curve -- at several different wavelengths -- can provide the evidence we need to figure out many physical properties of the star, such as size, mass, and temperature. There are a number of groups which study variable stars:

Use processing techniques to sidestep the atmosphere
In recent years, good video cameras have become cheap. They can detect only very bright objects, but the major planets in the Solar System are bright. People have worked out ways to improve the quality of pictures by combining many short exposures in sophisticated ways.

You can find one very simple example, involving our own telescopes, at

There are lots and lots and LOTS of web sites which describe how one can process large stacks of images. These sites will describe the software, such as Registax , you need to do the job. A few examples are

Observe an occultation (by asteroid or moon)
Once or twice a month, the shadow of an asteroid passes over Rochester. If we can measure the exact time when it happens, and the duration of the dimming of the background star, we can pin down the orbit of the asteroid, place strong limits on the size of the asteroid, and maybe even learn something about the star. We have done this quite often in Rochester; see, for example,

The Moon also passes in front of stars occasionally, which can tell us about the topography of the very limb of the Moon, and sometimes information about the occulted star. You can find predictions of upcoming events, plus information on what to do, at

Detect a planet around another star
There are several ways to detect planets around other stars. One of them involves transits, in which the planet passes in front of its star and blocks a tiny fraction of the starlight for a few hours. With careful processing, even small telescopes can detect these transits.

Creative Commons License Copyright © Michael Richmond. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.