The Double Star that Wasn’t

When Lance Mayhue ’18 took Astronomy through the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON) last fall, he had no idea that he would be selected by the professor to be involved in groundbreaking research and become a research contributor with a publication credit in the Journal of Double Star Observation.
A National Merit Semifinalist, Mayhue took the course as an extension of the Fort Worth Country Day science curriculum—a course that was made available to him through MSON because of his commitment to academics and his ability to work independently.

Kalée Tock, Science Instructor at Stanford Online High School (OHS), taught the semester-long course, which included approximately 16 students. The course introduced Mayhue and his peers to historical and modern astronomy, including topics such as the nature of light, the atom, telescopes and orbits. In addition, students learned about the lifecycles of stars and were introduced to dark matter and black holes. Through various activities and experiments, Mayhue engaged with current research, examining the modern astronomical data used to search for and categorize the thousands of planets outside the solar system.

“I took the course to delve into astronomy … to determine if I might want to pursue it as a major in college,” Mayhue said. “Professor Tock was dynamic and energizing in her approach of the topic.”

His favorite project: The phases of the moon. “At the beginning of the course, each student received a bag of supplies. One of those supplies was a box of Oreos. I thought, ‘Wow, what a nice professor, she’s giving us a snack!” Mayhue said. “We used the Oreos to show the phases, lifting the top cookie off the cream and then carving the cream to show the moon’s progression. I then made a video to show the phases.”

Mayhue was a standout in class. Tock took notice of him and three students from OHS, asking them to pilot a research seminar for her. She wanted the students to research double stars in the spring semester.

For this sci-fi aficionado, the research was a perfect fit. “A double star could be either a binary star [two stars physically orbiting around each other] or an optical/apparent double star [two stars that only look like they physically orbit each other], similar to the Tatooine suns in Star Wars,” he said.

Mayhue first had to choose a cataloged double star with previous observations to research in order to make a significant impact. He chose a famous star discovered in Cape Cod in the 1800s by John Herschel. Together, he and  OHS student Ava Giles researched the history of the star. “We found the stars original document in a British journal,” he shared. “The next step was to cross reference it and find the star based on the new cataloging system.”

Once the star was located in this new system, Mayhue and Giles were able to observe it using the Skynet Program. Using Tock’s credentials, they directed the system to the star being observed and captured images at various times throughout the night. Skynet then provided pictures, which were run through special software to compare, contrast and analyze. “I calculated the standard deviation of the star as it moved across the sky and analyzed the star’s brightness and the distance apart.” he said. “What we ultimately uncovered was exciting. Our findings point toward this being only an apparent double star.”

“This finding was so awesome,” Mayhue continued. “This was Professor Tock’s first InStAR [Institute for Student Astronomical Research] seminar, and we discovered something so cool. Once we had it reviewed by a legit astronomer, we were given the green light to write the paper. While drafting the article was definitely interesting, I much prefer the research part of the project.”

The article will be published in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Double Stars Observation, and the data was submitted to the Washington Double Star Catalog, which is the world’s principal database of astrometric double and multiple star information. Not bad to have an impressive publishing credential under your belt as a senior in high school.

About MSON
As a Malone Family Foundation School and a founding MSON school, Fort Worth Country Day is one of only 22 schools in the nation capitalizing on the virtual classroom to enhance its rigorous college-preparatory education. Offered to juniors and seniors, MSON courses take place in a virtual classroom two times per week and enhance each member school’s existing curriculum. At FWCD, they serve as an enrichment elective. Courses, taught by independent school teaching professionals who are experts in their fields, take a blended approach, combining synchronous instruction, real-time video conferencing seminars, with asynchronous instruction, recorded lectures and exercises that students complete outside of class. The experience lies somewhere between a “flipped classroom” and a virtual “Harkness table” learning experience.
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Fort Worth Country Day (FWCD) is a JK-12 private, independent, coeducational, nondenominational college-preparatory school located on approximately 100 acres in Fort Worth, Texas. The mission of Fort Worth Country Day School is to foster the intellectual, physical, emotional, and ethical development of capable students through an academically rigorous college preparatory program that integrates the arts and athletics.

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