The Hutton-Westfold Observatory at Monash University's Clayton campus means that Monash students are able to observe stars and distant galaxies that are ten thousand times fainter than what can be seen with the unaided eye. This allows students to discern much about these celestial objects and the Universe in which we reside. The facility has been developed jointly by the School of Physics and the School of Mathematics, and is named in honour of the late Don Hutton and the late Kevin Westfold, who made significant contributions to astronomy and student learning at Monash University over the course of several decades.
Third year students in ASP3231 (Observational Astronomy) use the observatory use to learn how to collect astronomical images, then process and calibrate these to produce data which can be used for scientific research. They do this in groups of 2-3 students, each group observing a different object. They spend half of the semester processing their images using the same software used by "real" astronomers, then in the second half of semester they use the data to carry out a scientific analysis of their astronomical object and produce a detailed report.
The main objects studied are:
- Exoplanets - students observe a star as one of its planet passes in front of it. As the planet moves in front of the star there is a drop in intensity of the light collected from it, because some is blocked by the planet. From this they can estimate the radius of the planet and with some extra information they can estimate its mass.
- Star clusters - produce a Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram and use this to find the distance to the cluster, its age and mass function.
- Galaxies - estimate the age of stellar populations in the bulge and disk of the galaxy, produce a density profile and estimate the galaxy mass.