This post is by Parker Troischt, a professor of physics at Hartwick College, and member of the ALFALFA Undergraduate Team.
I’m here this week for the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team Workshop with two of my students (Catherine Weigel and Jaclyn Patterson) from Hartwick College. We arrived from the airport Sunday night and immediately signed up for observing early Monday morning. And I am very glad that I did! At little after 5:00am in the morning, I was part of a group of students and faculty who were monitoring the data in the control room at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) as the telescope received the most spectacular signal any of us had ever seen. We could make out a very bright HI source with clear rotation by examining our frequency vs. time plot while telescope scanned across the sky. At the same time, there was also a strong continuum signal visible across all the frequencies we could monitor. The control room was buzzing with excitement! Students from Union College, St. Lawrence University and Hartwick College used the object’s sky coordinates (RA and Dec) and a few astronomical databases in order to find an optical counterpart and identify the object. It turned out to a relatively nearby galaxy called NGC 4631. This spiral galaxy has very interesting HI features with several “spurs” indicating that it is interacting with other nearby galaxies. It also has a very strong radio continuum. One student excitedly remarked, “I am all set. I can go home happy now!”
So far, the workshop has been an incredible opportunity for students and faculty at several institutions to participate in science on a large scale. The number of hands-on experiences for students has been amazing. We are learning how to observe using Arecibo remotely in one session, and getting a chance to work with data analysis tools the next. We have also had a number of good talks. For example, we just got to hear a great talk about how Arecibo is used as a radar facility in order to pinpoint and track near-Earth asteroids. I am very much looking forward to more excitement tonight as I will be part of a team beginning a new observing session. So.. stay tuned!!