We always tell TIPsters to reach for the stars—and sometimes we mean that literally.
Every year, dozens of TIP students study life out beyond the atmosphere. We interviewed a few of them to learn about what they do, what they find interesting, and what they have to tell other TIPsters.
Tell us a little about yourself and your space-related activities
Makaila Jennings, seventh grade: I have been interested in astronomy since I was four years old. This year, I was the Junior Grand Champion for the Alabama Science and Engineer Fair. I also won Junior Grand and first place in the astronomy and physics category at the Northwest Regional Science and Engineer Fair. My science fair project was titled: “How Luminosity Impacts the Ability to Spot Exoplanets Using Transient Photometry.” I also won special awards from NASA, the American Society of Astronomic and Aeronautics, and qualified as a Broadcom Master (being identified as one of the top 10 percent of middle school scientists).
I was also one of the youngest people to ever host a NASA Astronomy Night when I was eight years old (three years ago). I am going into the seventh grade (I have been a member of Duke TIP since fourth grade) and will be hosting a workshop to introduce elementary and middle school students to exoplanets at the US Space and Rocket Center Planetarium. I am also a member of the Von Braun Astronomical Society. I am currently writing a children’s book about astronomy.
Olivia Hanigan, twelfth grade: I’m from Garden City, Kansas, and headed into my senior year of high school. I got into space and astronomy about a year ago.
Callie Walling, eighth grade: I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina, and I’m going into eighth grade. I’ve been intrigued by space and astronomy since the beginning of sixth grade, and I still enjoy it today!
What interests you about space and astronomy?
Makaila: I started to learn about astronomy because I wanted to know more about space and things like the difference between planets and dwarf planets, why Pluto was no longer a planet, and how astronomers discover exoplanets.
The subject that interests me in astronomy is exoplanets. I like learning about how astronomers discover exoplanets, how we can improve the discovery of exoplanets, and whether or not there might be life outside of our solar system.
Olivia: I started learning about the subjects because they were the topics of many of my World Science Scholar courses. The main thing that draws me to the study of space is the mysteries space contains and how these mysteries hold the key to understanding not only the universe but our own reality here on Earth.
Callie: I started learning about topics of interest to give me multiple career options that would be suitable for me. I love how there is just so much you can learn that you don’t already know and how you can keep learning more and more.
Can you give us a little more detail about what you do to study astronomy?
Makaila: The Von Braun Astronomical Society (VBAS) and it is really neat because I am able to attend monthly meetings and talks and learn from other amateur astronomers. People are always willing to help you learn more about your own telescope and they have large telescopes on the roof that we can use for night viewing. I also have been able to find great mentors as a part of the society.
I first got involved with the VBAS when I started doing research for my science fair project in the fifth grade. My project was on whether or not the color of the star impacted the ability to spot exoplanets. I have continued with exoplanet research since then. One of the things I like about being a part of the society is that you get a chance to learn a lot of things. For instance, the last meeting was on things researchers learned from the total solar eclipse that took place in 2017. That was really neat because I actually got to witness the total solar eclipse myself.
I also went to Family Space Camp when I was seven and traditional Space Camp twice, and one of those times I won the Right Stuff Award, which was really amazing. I was also given special permission to become a volunteer at the US Space and Rocket Center, because volunteers normally have to be sixteen to start. It was a big honor to be invited to volunteer at just eleven years old.
I own three different telescopes, star gaze often, and have even taught my friends and their parents how to use telescopes. My bedroom is space themed and I even keep two of my telescopes in there. I like teaching my friends how they can know when they are seeing a planet versus a star and teaching them about the constellations. I love learning more about the constellations myself and even studied Greek and Roman mythology so that I could better understand the names of constellations, stars, planets, and moons.
Olivia: The World Science Scholars program was created to bring together students passionate about math and science and teach them about scientific topics where they can use their mathematical skills. We took a variety of courses related to space and learned a lot about Einstein’s theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, string theory, dark matter, and astrobiology.
Callie: I own my own little collection of books regarding astrophysics that are by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I do attend a Astronomy club which I really enjoy.
What’s an interesting fact about stars or space that you think other TIPsters would be interested to know?
Makaila: My favorite thing that I have seen through my telescope is a lunar eclipse. I have a picture of me looking at it through my telescope. It was really cool to see it so well. I took my telescopes to the Space and Rocket Center and set them up along with other amateur astronomers and it was really neat to have this experience with so many other people.
I also think other TIPsters would be interested to know that on the planet Neptune it rains diamonds and that when you go to space you age slower. It is really interesting to think about because I have a twin brother, so if I went far enough out in space we could end up being much further apart in age than we are now (he is one minute older than me).
Olivia: A fact about space I find very interesting is that when stargazing and looking out at the stars, we are technically looking back in time. All stars visible from Earth are incredibly far away, meaning the starlight has taken a very long time to reach our eyes so we are in fact seeing the stars as they once were.
Callie: Well one would be how Neuron Stars can spin six hundred times per second.
This issue is inspired in part by a recent New York Times story about pilots who saw UFOs. What are your thoughts? Do you think aliens are out there?
Makaila: I definitely think there is life outside of our solar system. There are billions of stars and there are probably billions of exoplanets as well. That means the probability of there being life outside of our solar system is very high. It is exciting to think about and definitely one of the reasons I would love to be a planet hunter trying to discover exoplanets when I get older.
Olivia: After being exposed to the field of astrobiology through the World Science Scholars program, I would say that there are definitely some sorts of alien life. However, I feel that the probability of aliens being as advanced as humans is highly unlikely. I expect aliens to resemble animals such as insects and unicellular organisms rather than the fully intelligent and aware beings pop culture imagines.
Callie: I think that they could be out there. While I’m not sure about all the claimed encounters I do know that we certainly can’t be the only form of life in our universe. Also I do believe that aliens are here on Earth—it is not to cause harm but to simply learn about us and our technology.
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