Sunday, October 17, 2010

Astronomy Course Update

I am now just past the half-way point of my elective astronomy course, taken as part of my Masters program. How is it going? REALLY difficult!!! The course itself is titled "Solar System and Planetary Studies" and I admittedly thought it would be a leisurely, educational tour of the planets. Nope. I have never had to deal with so much mathematics in all my life. Considering I was literally thrown out of Year 10 maths in high school, this has been like a nightmare!

It's interesting stuff, for sure. We've studied subjects like the birth of the solar system via the nebular theory, Kepler's laws, all sorts of observational measurement systems using simulated optical and radio telescope platforms. We've also been studying advanced telescope systems like adaptive optics (now THAT is cool stuff! Hopefully miniaturization will enable that technology to be sued on measly 10" or 12" scopes some day!) It's really been pretty cool in that regard and I have definitely learned a lot.

The mathematics behind it, though, is staggering. And I am sure this is the easy-peasy stuff that astronomers recite in their sleep while multitask dreaming of dark matter and the ingredients of the primordial soup. Still, it's a tough challenge. I'm hovering around 90% right now and would be happy if I stayed there (which would take a lot of luck). I must say that while the math is indeed tricky, there are those golden, "Eureka!" type moments when it does all come together. It's almost like you've discovered something on your own that nobody else has. It's a neat feeling.

We've had an interesting set of assignments, including how to calculate Jupiter's mass by observing and analyzing the rotation of its four largest moons (Kepler's third law), and how to determine the radial velocity of Mercury by analyzing the echoes of a radio telescope ping to the planet. I'd post the papers here but fear they will be used by cheats.

We're currently studying planetary atmospheres, which is also interesting as I've been keeping an eye on the ongoing exoplanet discoveries and have been able to relate what we're reviewing and some of the more complex articles I've been reading online.

So, soldiering on at this point. The next assignment is about the detection of asteroids using plate solving technology. Should be fun, as long as there's no ultra-tricky math involved! :-)


Jared said...

Sounds like a good course! You can already get some types of Adaptive Optics units for smaller telescopes. They're not quite as accurate as the big ones but still are pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil, had no idea you were taking a university-level course. In year 12 I had the notion of studying astrophysics, but the "remoteness" of the Monash campus was definitely an issue. Any mention of the 3-body problem in the context of planets and moons? As I understand that there are certain configurations that are essentially chaotic, although I don't know off the top of my head if these actually arise in the real universal. (Or stable enough to last a reasonably long time)

Phil said...

Jared - pretty cool! I didn't know those were available. Not cheap but still a brilliant idea. I hope you got out last week to observe. I hot the COE last Saturday night. Decent crowd there but I remained a bit unsociable as I was completely focused on getting some images.

Anonymous - Assuming this is...Jason? :-) Yes, taking astronomy. I had an elective block to fill for my Masters program and decided to take this course from my college's Space Studies department. I initially thought the course might be easy given my amateur endeavors, but Murphy has been showing me otherwise. Probably the most difficult course I have taken as part of my program.


Roberto said...

Hi Phil! It's sounds very interesting. Good luck! I know on my own how dificult the maths are, i'm studying phiscics and sometimes it is worse than a nightmare but it's worth it!


Phil said...

Roberto - you are a masochist, maybe? I am pretty sure the maths we are learning is something you would laugh at, so I admire you for what you're up to! Good luck with it.