Two Lake Highlands High School students discovered five stars as members of a SMU summer physics research program that enabled them to analyze data gleaned from a high-powered telescope in the New Mexico desert.
All five stars discovered by Dominik Fritz and Jason Barton are eclipsing contact binary stars — pairs of stars that orbit around each other so closely that their outer atmospheres touch. As the stars eclipse, they dim and then brighten as one emerges from behind the other. These stars are categorized as variable stars, stars that change brightness, which make up half the stars in the universe.
Fritz and Barton are among nine students and two teachers from area high schools who are conducting physics research at SMU through the QuarkNet program. Hockaday teacher Leon de Oliveira and four of his students — Eliza Cope, Allison Aldrich, Sarah Zhou, and Mary Zhong — also conducted QuarkNet research this summer.
Fritz and Barton are the first high school researchers at SMU to discover new stars. The stars discovered by the students are located in the northern sky constellations of Pegasus and Ursa Major, but they can’t be seen by the naked eye.
Working in a campus science building basement laboratory, the students used analysis software, perseverance and patience to parse the data collected (but never analyzed) in 2000 by Robert Kehoe, SMU associate professor of physics, through ROTSE-I, a telescope at Los Alamos, N.M. Their discoveries have been accepted into the American Association of Variable Star Observers International Variable Star Index.