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April 27, 2023

Undergraduate research stars at the MSU Observatory

The 50-year-old observatory continues to create new scientific knowledge thanks to Spartan undergraduate research

Story highlights:

  • Seth Jacobson, Michigan State University assistant professor and planetary scientist, has helped NASA confirm that its Double Asteroid Redirect Test, or DART, successfully diverted an asteroid from its initial path.
  • DART’s success shows a similar approach could be used to protect Earth from incoming asteroids in the future.
  • This result is published in the journal Nature, but Jacobson also stresses the importance of research done by MSU undergraduates whose names don’t appear on this particular publication. 
  • Undergraduate students who belong to the MSU Observatory Research Program, or MORP, are working on a variety of projects, including DART, to advance our understanding of the cosmos and gain valuable experience for their future careers.


It’s not hard to make the case that Michigan State University planetary scientist Seth Jacobson is a bit of a celebrity: Leonardo DiCaprio kind of played him.


In the movie “Don’t Look Up,” DiCaprio portrayed a fictitious MSU scientist trying to save the world from a comet on a collision course with Earth. Jacobson is a real MSU scientist working with NASA to prove it could redirect incoming space rocks if the need arises.


In fact, Jacobson recently contributed to a paper published in the journal Nature that’s part of the first wave of analysis showing how NASA successfully knocked a near-Earth asteroid off its initial path (to be clear, this was a proof-of-concept mission, and the planet wasn’t in immediate danger).

MSU researcher Seth Jacobson talks about his work on planetary defense and his brush with fame. Credit: MSU

Despite his success and arguable celebrity status, Jacobson isn’t interested in the spotlight. Instead, he says, that belongs to up-and-coming astronomers whose names aren’t listed on this particular paper.


“The best part of this story is the astronomy students at the MSU Observatory,” says Jacobson, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “The undergrads are driving research at the observatory. They’re out there observing all night. They finish their classes, have dinner, stay up until 5 o’clock in the morning at the observatory and still make their classes the next day.”


The MSU Observatory has a decades-long history of enabling undergraduates to get valuable hands-on research experience, but that was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the MSU Observatory Research Program, or MORP, is back.


Although MORP’s data wasn’t included in the first round of publications detailing the asteroid deflection, the team already has new papers in the works, Jacobson says. And these papers are really a byproduct, rather than the end goal, of MORP’s mission.


The MSU Observatory is enabling undergraduates to generate important data for the astronomy community while gaining valuable skills and experience in an increasingly competitive field. In doing so, they’re setting themselves and future generations of Spartan students up for success.

A view of the moon through the open dome of the MSU Observatory
A view of the moon through the open dome of the MSU Observatory. Credit: Michael D-L Jordan/DLP

Astronomical redirections


Emma Dugan is a senior in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who isn’t where she thought she’d be four years ago.


“The observatory completely changed the track I was on,” Dugan says. “In a very good way.”


Today, Dugan works on a research team led by Joey Rodriguez, an assistant professor in the College of Natural Science, who studies worlds beyond our solar system called exoplanets.


“When I first started school, I was actually dead set against exoplanet research,” Dugan says. But MSU had also hired Rodriguez to oversee the observatory’s research program. In that role, he also teaches the class that’s required to join MORP.


“After taking the class Joey taught, I got interested,” Dugan says.


This past fall, though, she was looking for a new topic for her senior thesis project. That’s when she again took advantage of an unplanned research opportunity.

“The observatory completely changed the track I was on in a very good way.” - Emma Dugan, senior in the MSU Observatory Research Program

One evening, she attended an event called Astronomy on Tap at the UrbanBeat restaurant in Old Town Lansing, about 10 minutes from campus, where Jacobson was presenting about the project he was working on. It was NASA’s first planetary defense mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART.


“The DART mission was happening at the perfect time,” Dugan says. “After I heard Seth’s talk, we realized the observatory would be capable of seeing the asteroid. From there, we wanted to find out if we could get any useful data.”

Michigan State University senior Emma Dugan, who is part of the MSU Observatory Research Program
Michigan State University senior Emma Dugan, who is part of the MSU Observatory Research Program. Credit: Michael D-L Jordan/DLP

The premise behind DART is simple: If an asteroid is hurtling toward our planet, we may be able to deflect it safely away by hitting it with a low-cost, uncrewed spacecraft.


To test that theory, NASA sent the DART Impactor spacecraft barreling into an asteroid named Dimorphos at 13,000 miles per hour. (Dimorphos orbits a larger asteroid named Didymos, hence the “Double Asteroid” part of DART).


An image created by the telescope at the MSU Observatory showing the asteroid system struck by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART. The asteroids appear as a small, bright white circle standing out against the darkness of a night sky. A thin, faint white tail extends to the right from the circle, showing material ejected from one of the asteroids after being struck by the DART spacecraft.
An image of the asteroid system struck by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission captured by Michigan State University undergraduate students at the MSU Observatory on Oct. 3, 2022. The faint trail visible to the right of the bright spot is material ejected from the collision, which took place on Sept. 26. Credit: Michael Bellaver and Jeremy Fedewa/MSU Observatory Research Program

The collision was roughly 7 million miles away from Earth, which is close enough to see with telescopes like the one at the MSU Observatory. That’s important because astronomers had to keep tabs on Dimorphos for weeks after the impact to learn if and how much DART had altered its course.


Although NASA has fancy space telescopes that could do that, DART was designed to work with support from a global network of ground-based observatories like MSU’s for a simple reason: cost.


“The James Webb Space Telescope and Hubble both looked at the asteroid before and after impact, but it’s really expensive to do that,” Dugan says. At MSU, Dugan and her MORP colleagues could watch the asteroid every clear night for a month for next to nothing in comparison.


MORP’s data wasn’t included in the recent Nature publication — there was an abundance of high-quality data from other sources — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable or that the observations weren’t a good use of time.


For starters, that data will be part of a new paper the team is already working on. Furthermore, this work added near-Earth asteroids to the list of celestial objects undergrads can research at the observatory.


“It was really hard to know what to expect going into this,” Dugan says. “It wasn’t like anything we had observed before.”


Tracking an asteroid that was basically our neighbor required a different approach than observing distant exoplanets, which she had studied on Rodriguez’s team prior to her thesis project.


But Dugan wasn’t alone. She had help from the MORP cohort, currently about 15 undergraduates, and former postdoctoral researcher Kirill Sokolovsky, who is now with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Their effort produced new techniques that can be adopted and adapted by future MORPers.


“There is a lot of science out there,” says Rodriguez. “There’s a lot we can do with the observatory.”

Learn more about the MSU Observatory from the people using it to further our knowledge of the cosmos and to share their love of the night sky with their community. Credit: Elias Aydi/Michael D-L Jordan/MSU Astronomy

Astronomers in our own backyard

The MSU Observatory opened in 1970, and while newer technology has come along in the time since, this 50-year-old campus fixture is still active in research and outreach.

The MSU Observatory hosts monthly public observing nights in Michigan’s warmer months that regularly attract more than 100 visitors from campus and its neighboring communities.


A photograph taken with the help of the MSU Observatory’s telescope shows an airplane flying in front of a waxing crescent moon. The plane is in front the dark side of the crescent. Craters and smooth areas are detailed on the crescent’s bright side.
An airplane makes a cameo in this image of the moon taken with the MSU Observatory’s 24-inch telescope. Credit: Elias Aydi

And thanks to faculty advisers like Rodriguez and Laura Chomiuk, co-directors of the MSU Observatory, the facility has adapted to offer valuable support to larger science missions.


“We are a service to the undergrad population of MSU and the community at large,” says Chomiuk, who is also a professor of physics and astronomy. “MORP offers hands-on research experience to these undergraduates, and it enables them to see what authentic research in a modern lab is like.”


“Nowadays, with these big missions and space-based telescopes, there’s this misconception that observatories like ours are just for outreach,” Rodriguez says. “That’s just not true. If you know your instrument, there’s a lot you can do.”


Rodriguez joined MSU during the pandemic at a time when the observatory was shut down. Reopening the building and bringing the telescope back online were no small feats.


“Observatories aren’t really built to be left alone for months on end,” Rodriguez says.


On top of that, the team also lost a lot of institutional and operational knowledge that senior MORP members would traditionally share with newcomers.

“We are a service to the undergrad population of MSU and the community at large.” - Laura Chomiuk, co-director of the MSU Observatory and professor of physics and astronomy

But with its faculty leadership, grad students like Jack Schulte, postdoctoral researchers including Elias Aydi and, of course, current MORP members, the observatory is now fully operational. And that comes at a critical time in science education.


Undergraduate interest in astronomy is taking off in the United States while the number of graduate school openings for incoming students has stayed comparatively flat. Yet most astronomy jobs require a doctoral degree, according to the American Astronomical Society.

With competition for graduate school admissions being what it is, Rodriguez says he can’t guarantee every MORP student will get to pursue an advanced degree at their first school of choice.


“But that’s not really the point. The point is training,” he says. “What we can guarantee is that the students will get the training that they need to be successful.”


With that training and experience, some students will learn that their professional interests and passions lie elsewhere. Others will have the tools they need to go on and earn a doctorate in astronomy. Either way, these undergraduates will have a jump start on the next phase of their careers before graduating from MSU.


“Every week in my class, I get asked about the observatory and the MORP program,” Rodriguez says. “That’s the value of the observatory: the fact that we can train our students to be professionals in our own backyard.”


Rodriguez says MORP’s membership will be growing by about 60% this summer. And this time around, the new members’ training will once again include the wisdom passed down by MORP’s graduating members. That includes Dugan, who’s currently deciding which of two graduate school offers to accept.

By: Matt Davenport

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