Week 3: "Spectra"

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Sunday, June 15, 2014


Nick Durofchalk

An example of Ultraviolet Spectra taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. The vertical lines are actual emission lines from Eta Carinae! (For those wondering, the brightest pixel is located in the leftmost emission line)On Monday, June 9th, the Hubble Space Telescope looked towards Eta Carinae and collected spectrogram data with the on board Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. This particular data collection was incredibly exciting for me, because I would be one of the first people to analyze it! My mentor, Ted Gull, had made prior arrangements with his family to drive out to New Brunswick and would be out of the office for the next week and a half. So Dr. Gull, on Monday afternoon, gave Caleb, my co-NASA-intern, and I our main assignment for the week: Analyze the raw data from the Hubble, and make note of the brightest coordinate from each spectrograph (the catch was that some of the 'brightest' pixels were artifacts from the camera or from cosmic ray hits, and were not from Eta Carinae at all, so we had to make sure our brightest pixel was indeed part of the spectra from the star system). All in all, there were around 300 spectra to examine. Caleb and I started on Tuesday and were able to finish by Thursday morning. Honestly, while it was kind of tedious looking through 300 pictures for the brightest pixel, being one of the first people in the world to look at brand new data gives rise to one of the most exciting feelings.

But Hubble Data wasn't the only new and exciting thing I dealt with this past week. My other main assignment was to sort through a large sample of data from the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) collected over the past twenty years on Eta Carinae. As part of the project Caleb and I will be working on, it is important to make sure we know how all this data fits together, since a lot of it was gathered for different projects. Encoded within each and every data file is something called a 'header.' This header contains a wealth of information about the data, when it was taken, for what project, which aperture setting, etc. It was my duty to go through all of these headers and record the value of the "Position Angle" for each and every file. I was to do this by creating an IDL procedure. Now I'm not entirely unfamiliar with programming, but I'm far from familiar. It took me two days to write a script that in essence: read a file, opened its header, stored the value of the Position Angle, and output it to a text file. While that may seem like a simple program, it was definitely a challenge to write. But now, having tasted my first bit of IDL coding, I'm starting to get the hang of it, and this too is an exciting feeling.

It was a bit strange though, finishing so much of my work by Thursday afternoon. Caleb and I stayed in touch with Dr. Gull over the week through email, and he gave us a few more smaller assignments to work on: namely, adding the position angles to an excel spreadsheet along with some other information. Caleb and I also looked at about half of the IUE files manually and attempted to determine which files were useful to us, and which files contained nothing but noise. So towards the end of the week, the excitement died down, and we are eager for our next assignment.

But once Friday evening came around, I was more than happy to put off that next assignment until Monday. My girlfriend came down on Friday evening and throughout the weekend we explored new areas of Washington DC. We went to the Smithsonian National of Air and Space Museum, went on more monument tours, went to the National Zoo, and watched the Game of Thrones season four finale with the majority of the other SPS interns and the Director of SPS herself. It was an awesome weekend and I only wish it could've lasted longer.


Nick Durofchalk