In pursuit of the Stars: Alyson and Hannah’s Expedition to McDonald Observatory

Western University students Alyson Loney and Hannah Christie recently embarked on an extraordinary journey to the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. Their trip, driven by a shared love for astronomy, provided them with valuable insights beyond the classroom.

Alyson, a fourth-year student studying Astrophysics, and Hannah, just starting her Master's, brought different backgrounds but shared excitement to this adventure. Despite starting in different academic areas—Alyson in computer science and Hannah in engineering—their mutual interest in astronomy led them towards this remarkable opportunity.

For Hannah, the trip was a chance to gain insight into the practical side of astronomy. "It was a great opportunity to learn about how data is collected, giving more perspective to what you’re working with," she explained.

“It’s remarkable to get the chance to go out into the field and take real-time observations in such a remote age of astronomy. This was an exciting event,” said Alyson.

The main goal was clear: to collect valuable data on low surface brightness spiral galaxies, with a special focus on

Galaxy UGC8839

The galaxy UGC8839

target galaxy UGC8839. This ambitious undertaking was made possible by Dr. Jason Young, their supervisor, who secured valuable observation time at the observatory.

Nights at the observatory were filled with meticulous work, from preparing the telescope to battling unpredictable weather conditions. "We worked from 4 PM to 9 AM, spending a lot of time preparing the telescope and waiting for the right conditions," Hannah recalled, describing the long hours they dedicated to their research.

The journey had its challenges, from battling humidity to adjusting to the quiet mountaintop surroundings. But amidst it all, Alyson and Hannah found beauty in stargazing and scientific exploration.

One of the most memorable moments came when they saw their first successful observation. "The first time we switched to our galaxy and saw the data pop up on the screen was incredible," Alyson shared. "It was a very exciting science moment," she added.

Looking ahead, both students are eager to translate their experiences into real-world impacts to the field of astronomy. "It makes me so much more grateful for the data we have," Hannah reflected. "It really puts into perspective how much time has to go into getting data and how many things can go wrong."

Alyson and Hannah had valuable advice for aspiring astronomers. Hannah encouraged students to "shoot their shot" and actively seek opportunities. Alyson emphasized the importance of passion and following your interests no matter how daunting they seem. Alyson and Hannah's journey serves as inspiration for aspiring astronomers. Their diverse pathways into the field highlight the possibilities within the Faculty of Science.

Their journey to the McDonald Observatory is a testament to the value of hands-on experience in scientific research. As they look to the future, Alyson and Hannah are excited about upcoming projects like the Dragonfly mission to Titan, led by Western’s Catherine Neish, and launching their podcast – “Lensed with Hannah and Alyson”. Their adventure is just beginning, and they can't wait to see where it takes them.

By Courtney Klein
Western Science Communications