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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Jordan Hall observatory facilitates student research, discovery

The observatory on top of the Jordan Hall of Science.

The Jordan Hall of Science houses an observatory that enables Notre Dame students to view celestial bodies, including undiscovered planets.

McKenna Leichty, a physics major, accidentally uncovered the existence of a planet in the constellation Auriga while using the observatory’s Sarah L. Krizmanich Telescope, nicknamed the “Kriz.” She made the discovery while gathering data on an eclipsing polar — an eclipse in which a secondary star passes over a white dwarf.

When Leichty found a large error in her calculations to predict the next eclipse, she knew something was off. 

“We found this 52nd deviation,” Leichty said. “And we were like, 'What is that? Is there something wrong with the Kriz?' ... But it turns out other people also measured the same thing.”

Using an equation found in an obscure paper, Leichty said she determined that the error of her first calculation implies that there's a “third body” in the system — an entirely new planet candidate. Leichty will soon finalize her research on the planet candidate and publish a paper on her findings. 

The observatory that enabled Leichty’s research was constructed in 2013 through a donation from Thomas and Amy Krizmanich. The observatory itself contains the Sarah L. Krizmanich Telescope, which is named after the donors’ daughter.

While Jordan Hall houses other smaller telescopes, the Kriz is special because it enables individuals to see celestial bodies that the smaller ones cannot see.

“This telescope can see fainter things than those smaller scopes, [such as] quasars that [date] halfway back to the Big Bang,” said Peter Garnavich, a professor in the physics and astronomy department.

The observatory is primarily used by Notre Dame students enrolled in physics classes that require studying the night sky. The observatory is open to students taking two such courses, Descriptive Astronomy and Elementary Cosmology, two hours Sunday through Thursday. The times when these students can access the observatory vary depending on the season.

At the beginning of the school year, the observatory is open from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Currently, the observatory is open earlier — 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. as the sky gets dark earlier.

In addition to use of the Kriz for class projects, physics majors such as Leichty wield the Kriz to conduct their research.

Another physics major, Anousha Greiveldinger, reclassified a cataclysmic variable star using her observations from the Kriz. For decades the star V844 Herculis was classified as a “dwarf nova,” a star that accretes gas from a disk donated by its companion, until Greiveldinger studied it.

“What Anousha and collaborators discovered is that the compact star appears to have a strong magnetic field that grabs the gas and funnels it directly onto the magnetic poles of the star,” Garnavich wrote in an email. “This is a different classification called an ‘intermediate polar.’”

Greiveldinger and collaborators subsequently wrote and published a paperbased on her findings, reclassifying the star.

Though the observatory is mainly restricted to students in certain courses, there are instances when it is open to the public. Viewing events are occasionally held during special astrological occurrences. Recently, Jordan Hall held two events: a stargazing night for faculty and their families and a public viewing of lunar eclipse. There are plans underway for Jordan Hall to hold another such viewing in April to observe the forthcoming solar eclipse.

“As researchers, we just find lots of things spectacular,” Garnavich said. “Looking at the stars, and [observing] the physics of what’s going on [is] pretty exciting.”