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Student uses Keck to study ‘Tatooine’-like star system

  • Waipahu High School Senior Laura Daclison, center.
  • An artist's rendition of the Kepler-35 planetary system, in which a Saturn-size planet orbits a pair of stars. CREDIT: Lynette Cook/extrasolar.spaceart.org

MAUNAKEA — The “Star Wars” universe turned from science fiction to science fact for an Oahu student, who recently observed a real-life “Tatooine” using one of the largest, most scientifically impactful observatories in the world.

For an hour on Nov. 19, Waipahu High School Senior Laura Daclison performed professional astronomical observations of Kepler-35 using W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea.

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Like Luke Skywalker’s home planet where you can see two suns in the sky, Kepler-35 has a planet that orbits a pair of stars – a type of system called a circumbinary. Daclison used Keck Observatory’s instrument HIRES (High-Resolution Echelle Spectrometer) on the Keck I telescope to study Kepler-35.

Her goal is to find out what would happen if Earth had two suns.

“I chose Kepler-35 because the two stars are really similar to our sun,” said Daclison in a Keck news release. “I thought, if Earth had two suns just like Kepler-35, maybe there would be some correlation between them.”

Because there are so few known circumbinaries, Daclison wants to help astronomers gain a better understanding of these special systems.

Helping guide and mentor Daclison during her observing night were Keck Observatory Support Astronomer Josh Walawender, Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope Outreach Program Manager Mary Beth Laychak, University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy graduate students Christian Flores and Anna Payne, and Institute for Astronomy post-doc Lauren Weiss.

Daclison’s experience is part of the Maunakea Scholars program, where local students at Hawaii public high schools can apply for observing time on world-class telescopes on Maunakea.

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“Maunakea Scholars is a fabulous opportunity for students to really do science and it’s possible because of the University of Hawaii,” said Laychak. “We have contributions from all of the observatories — every telescope on the mountain gives observing time to these students. It gives them a really unique opportunity to not just learn about science, but actually do science.”

Daclison scored highly-competitive observing time at Keck Observatory after her proposal to study Kepler-35 was selected in February of this year. She is only the second high school student/Maunakea Scholar to observe at Keck Observatory since the facility’s twin telescopes began science operations 25 years ago.