February 04, 2005
When the Space Shuttle flies again, the safety of astronauts on board may rely in part on the award-winning research of high school student Ved Chirayath.
The new mid-year graduate of the California Academy of Mathematics and Science was recently named a semifinalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search for identifying a planet in orbit around a star 150 light-years away using only amateur astronomy instruments.
His inspiration came three years ago while reading about early discoveries of planets circling distant stars.
"I just wanted to take part in that," Chirayath said. "I wondered if I could do it."
With a modified Schmidt-Newtonian telescope assembled to his specifications, hours of computer programming and 14 trips to the new-moon darkness of the night sky above Mt. Piños, an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, he succeeded.
Thomas Jett, one of Chirayath’s science teachers at CAMS, said he had little to do with the project.
"I didn’t babysit this kid," Jett said. "He came to me with this project. It was already cooking.
"He’s an awesome student," Jett said. "He identified a problem, overcame the obstacles, put in the work and got some well deserved recognition for his accomplishments. And he did it with his own resources and some creative thinking."
Chirayath followed up his pioneering low-cost search for a planet circling Star HD 209548 by using what he learned to identify and track objects in Earth orbit, successfully imaging the International Space Station. In the future, telescopes on Earth may use similar techniques to inspect an orbiting space shuttle, hoping to spot any damage that could lead to the destruction of the vehicle on re-entry. Such inspections, had they been available, might have prevented the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003.
Although others around the world are pursuing the problem, Chirayath wanted to see how much performance could be squeezed out of relatively inexpensive instruments with his innovative combination of techniques.
He was able to produce the images with remarkable resolution. "If there had been a spacewalk while I was tracking it," Chirayath said, "the astronaut would have been in the picture."
The academic star hasn’t scheduled much downtime following his early graduation. Chirayath is in Russia this month to prepare Moscow State University’s group of six telescopes to identify and track satellites in Earth orbit. Professors at the university familiar with his work invited him for a six-week stay to modify the software used to run the telescopes and capture observations.
After that, he leaves for India, where he will spend three months teaching French and installing teleconferencing equipment at a school for Tibetan refugee children. He was inspired to help there by a presentation in middle school when he learned about the needs of the children at the school.
Sometime in April he should learn where he will be enrolling as a college freshman. Harvard, MIT, Columbia and Cal Tech are at the top of his list of schools, all with outstanding undergraduate astrophysics programs. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory named an asteroid after him in honor of his achievements.
"Astrophysics may not be a very practical field, but I know I want to major in it," Chirayath said. "After that, we’ll see."
His teacher is confident Chirayath will sort out all the options available to him.
"Ved’ll do fine," said Jett. "That’s just life when you’re 17 and a genius."