Instead of a summer job at the mall, two North Texas high schoolers spent their time off with a telescope. And it was time well spent.
For these astrophysicists-in-training, stargazing over the summer led to five unusual discoveries: new stars.
In some respects, Dominik Fritz and Jason Barton are typical high-schoolers. Jason’s haircut would make a pop star envious and Dominik’s snazzy specs are effortlessly cool.
When these two seniors at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas start to talk science, you realize quickly that they’re two in a million.
“I’m personally fascinated by nuclear reactions and that’s basically what happens in stars, it’s full of nuclear reactions, nuclear fusion, a little bit of fission,” Dominik says.
That set of interests made Dominik a perfect candidate for a summer physics program at SMU. Jason and two other students from the Richardson school district joined him.
"Two very, very large star systems"
While analyzing data from a high-powered telescope, Jason noticed a few stars that weren’t already in the database.
“I started looking over several nights and seeing if they were actual variable stars and if they did change in brightness over time, and then I combined them all and then I eventually submitted it,” Jason says.
In fact, both teens made a submission to an international star index that were accepted. Between them, they’d discovered five eclipsing binary contact stars. Dominik translates:
“Two very, very large star systems that are so close that they actually share their atmospheres.”
"It was beautiful"
Lake Highlands physics teacher Ken Taylor says not many kids make it to upper-level physics. That’s why he was so keen to get these students out of the textbook and into real research.
“It was beautiful for me to see my students who were going and forging ahead and taking things that they had learned and going into new territory and seeing the looks on their faces when they began to go somewhere where, in a sense, no one had gone before.”
No, they don't get naming rights
You’d think discovering five new stars would come with all kinds of perks. Both guys were a little disappointed naming rights weren’t one of them.
Their five stars will be known by 16-digit serial numbers. Dominik would have rather immortalized his four dogs.
Naming rights aside, Dominik and Jason’s astrophysics research is college application gold.
“You’re learning not only the subatomic level where you have neutrons and protons and electrons. You can’t see that,” Jason says. “But you can see stars in the sky and you can see there are massive processes with gravity and other forces so it’s this real life science that transcends the classroom.”
That means when their friends ask these two teens what they did over the summer, Jason and Dominik can point to the night sky’s twinkling lights and say, “discovered some of those.”
SMU’s summer research program also included students from Garland High and the Hockaday School.