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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

Emily Levesque- How megastars evolve by Melis A. '08

Emily spent the summer of 2004 conducting astronomy research at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. She ended up finding three stars each over a billion miles in diameter that weigh more than twenty-five times our sun.

I have always been proud of the fact that there is a star and a minor planet (a.k.a. an asteroid, but minor planet sounds substantially more impressive) bearing my name. I frequently exploit this factoid to arouse interest at dinner parties, that is, unless MIT junior Emily Levesque happens to be in attendance. Emily’s connection to outer space is not the result of a $54 check to the International Star Registry. Rather, Emily has gained international recognition for discovering three of the largest known stars.

Through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, Emily spent the summer of 2004 conducting astronomy research at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. She used a two meter telescope to observe 74 red supergiants, which are massive, cold stars nearing the end of their lifetime. The goal of the project was to find the temperature range of these stars to settle disputes between theory and observation and also to improve the understanding of how these megastars evolve. To determine the range, Emily took images of the stars’ spectra over a period of five nights, removed the noise from the detector and the atmosphere, cleaned up the data, and then compared the stars’ temperatures to existing models. The last few steps involved a table that also happened to calculate the radii of the stars and one day a fellow astronomer pointed out that these stars were really enormous. Emily initially thought that something went wrong, but soon discovered that she had just made the discovery of a lifetime.

The stars that Emily found are over a billion miles in diameter and weigh more than twenty-five times our sun. She had the honor of presenting the paper, of which she is the first author, announcing the discovery of these stars at the 205th American Astronomical Society meeting. At the meeting, Emily received comments and suggestions from some of America’s top astronomers and had a chance to hear some “really interesting” presentations.

Emily credits the excellent educational and research background of MIT for giving her this opportunity. Though her internship was not through MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Emily was originally introduced to the Kitt Peak observatory through the MIT Astronomy Field Camp. She encourages MIT students to participate in the field camp as well as in the Hands-On Astronomy Seminar, which teaches freshman the techniques of visual observation and imaging with small telescopes. She says that getting a UROP is one of the best things students can do and has had a UROP in the MIT Center for Space Research since last fall. Her new research project on relativistic jets is conducted under the guidance of Dr. Sebastian Heinz.

The Kitt Peak National Observatory where Emily conducted her research was conveniently located one hour away from the Grand Canyon, giving her the opportunity to pursue her hobbies of rock climbing, hiking, and basically “anything outdoors and dirty.” At MIT, she is getting a minor in writing, loves poetry, and participates in the concert choir. Finally, in the future, Emily plans to get a PhD in either astronomy or astrophysics and pursue a career in research.

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