Reaching for the stars

Clarke senior named Intel semifinalist for astronomy research


On Jan. 8, Clarke High School senior Ganesh Ravichandran, 17, became the school’s first Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist in seven years, and the only student in the district to earn the prestigious distinction this year.

Each year, more than 1,500 science research students from across the country enter the Intel competition. Three hundred are named semifinalists. Forty finalists will be announced on Jan. 22 and invited to Washington, D.C., in March to display their work to the public, meet with noted scientists and take part in final judging as they compete for the top award of $100,000.

Ganesh spent two summers working with a team of researchers led by graduate student Timothy Morton at the California Institute of Technology’s John Johnson Exoplanets Laboratory. The team used data from a camera system called Robo-AO to create a catalog of stars in our galaxy that may have orbiting planets.

The Robo-AO system was developed by researchers at Caltech and the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, India. When mounted on a 60-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, it creates unusually sharp images of stars — about 10 times sharper than if the telescope took photos without it. Using data from NASA’s Kepler space-observation mission, launched in 2009, the Robo-AO system recently captured images of potential planet-hosting stars.

The problem with NASA’s data, Ganesh explained, is that some of the stars “don’t actually have exoplanets because they’re false positives,” which makes Robo-AO an essential tool. Morton developed a false positive probability analysis, which calculates the chance that a signal is either from a planet or a false positive.

Ganesh’s role was to develop software — which he calls a “graphical user interface” — to analyze the Robo-AO images. “My goal was to design a computer program that went through all of these images manually,” he said, “to find each of these stars, and record the location of each of those stars in the images.”

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