For a 15 year-old Year 10 student at Mount Lawley Senior High School, an encounter with a telescope named SPIRIT was a life-changing experience.
Four and a half years later, Gurashish Singh Bhatia of Mirrabooka is completing his third year of Physics at UWA and credits SPIRIT with enabling him to see stars, literally and metaphorically.
Gur, as he is known, had been thinking about studying economics when his Year 10 science teacher introduced him and his classmates to the SPIRIT telescope initiative run by UWA’s SPICE program.
He said he became so fascinated with astronomy that he decided to concentrate on physics at UWA and is considering undertaking a PhD in engineering. This could potentially see him working on the nation’s biggest science project and the world’s largest land-based telescope – the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array, due to be completed in 2020.
Along with all the shots of friends, family and pets that most students his age have on their smart phones, Gur also has photos of asteroids, comets, stars, nebulae and planets – a whole 11,000 files, or 22 gigs of them.
SPIRIT I and II (funded by ICRAR, and SPICE) are two medium-sized telescopes comprising UWA’s flagship campus observatory. They are in retractable domes on top of the Physics building – but they can be remotely accessed through the web by high school and university students.
UWA’s Centre for Learning Technology’s Paul Luckas, who built the telescopes and now manages the SPIRIT initiative, said they were booked from dusk to dawn most days.
“The telescopes enable real research,” he said. “From minor planets to exo-planets, digital technology allows us to do things we could only have dreamed of a short time ago.”
When Gur was still at school he used SPIRIT I to measure the positions of asteroids billions of kilometres away. He submitted his findings to the IAU’s Minor Planet Centre at Harvard University. His measurements – accurate to fraction of a degree – were credited and published.
Pete Wheeler, ICRAR Outreach Education and Communications manager, said astronomy was a gateway to science.
“It’s so accessible. We all have a patch of sky that we can look up at with awe,” he said. “Astronomy teaches young people critical thinking.”
“And team-work and using technology and working collaboratively,” Mr Luckas added.
For Gur, it also has a massive wow factor.
Collecting photos from objects that have travelled millions of light years is exciting stuff and this semester he is using photometry to learn more about globular clusters – which are balls of stars that are billions of years old.
His favourite iPhone photo is the one he took himself of the impressive red Eagle Nebula. It may be something he’ll show new friends at the Gravity Waves Conference in China soon.