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Looking at Io

By: Chima McGruder, Major: Physics, Class of 2017


Mentors and Interns of the Space Science Institute

Over the summer of 2015, I was extremely lucky to do research in the Space Telescope Science Institute, located in Baltimore, Maryland. I learned about it after stumbling upon the website for the National Astronomy Consortium (NAC) while searching online for undergraduate research opportunities in astrophysics. How it works: You apply to the NAC, and the NAC sends your application to five different astronomy locations.

Most of the work I did was image processing in optical astrophysics. I worked on developing methods for data analysis of simulated images of Io, Jupiter’s closest moon. These images will eventually come from an instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), set to launch in 2018.

Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system, shining brightly in the infrared during its volcanic outbursts. Currently, we observe Io with ground-based telescopes, but atmospheric turbulence limits our observations of the volcanic activity. This is why a space telescope will be extremely useful in observing Io’s volcanos. We will be particularly looking at the position of volcanic eruptions, the flux of those eruptions, and the surface brightness of Io itself.


All of the interns at the Space Science Institute.

I was tasked to find how well JWST could accurately pinpoint the positions of volcanoes and the brightness of these volcanoes. My first step toward this goal was learning about image processing. Initially, much of my time was spent reading about and discussing the mathematical processes of forming an image through a space telescope.

Once I had a thorough understanding of how it was done, I made my own images. I compared my image data with a test image based on an expert’s simulations of an image of Io taken by JWST. If the images were identical, I knew the positions and brightness of my simulated image. If the two were not the same, I recreated the simulated image with different positions and brightness and compared them again. I had a computer program that completed this process over and over again until it got a result that had reasonably small differences between the test image and the simulated image.

The actual process is largely mathematical, because one cannot randomly choose positions and brightness but must use parameters that take the values in the right direction. My main task was to find the fastest and most accurate mathematical process to match the positions and brightness. I found that with a few assumptions made on the original image, the correct brightness could be measured within 3 percent.

This experience has given me many connections–connections to scientists I could contact for advice or assistance and friendships that I will never forget.

Picture4This is extremely useful for my future for many reasons. I plan on going to graduate school and doing astrophysics research then. I also plan on doing similar astrophysics research after receiving my PhD; therefore, this experience gave me a preview of what my work will be like in the near future. An experience like this is nearly essential for future graduate study. Without research experience, my resume would be extremely lacking. Lastly, this experience has given me many connections–connections to scientists I could contact for advice or assistance and friendships that I will never forget.

This experience was much more than just academic for me. There was an irreplaceable social aspect to it that I loved. There were 19 interns and by the end of the summer I felt like I was close friends with all of them. We gathered every weekend and do something new and fun. Sometimes our trips were work related, such as when visited the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Other times, we organized events on our own: We planned a trip to Washington D.C., a trip to Artscape (America’s largest free art festival), and a trip to Baltimore’s harbor to watch Fourth of July fireworks.


Currently, I continue my research work on my weekend free time, while frequently coordinating with my mentor back in Maryland. However, I will increase my research duties over the winter break. My mentor is using his grant to fund my transportation to Maryland so I may continue my work. When I return in the spring semester, I plan to coordinate with my mentor and the UTK Astrophysics Coordinator to continue my research for academic credit hours.