Montana State University

Winners announced in National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition at Montana State

May 21, 2012 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Physics students Kenny Sokolowski, Scott Patterson and Michael Baude (from left) from San Diego State University set up their spectrographic equipment May 17 while in Bozeman, Mont., at Montana State University for the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition hosted by the Montana Space Grant Consortium. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Teams from California, Maryland and Montana won top prizes at the National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition held May 16 to 18 at Montana State University.

Held in conjunction with an upcoming NASA satellite mission, the competition called for students to design and build optical instruments to answer questions about the sun or other scientific topics. They were judged in four categories: best science, best build, best design and best presentation. Each member of the winning teams won a $3,000 scholarship from NASA and the opportunity to watch NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) satellite launch at Vandenberg Air Force base in California. The launch is scheduled for December.

The student teams - many members wearing sunglasses and tanning noticeably during the competition -- took turns operating their spectrographs on the roof of MSU's AJM Johnson Hall. After interfacing their spectrographs to telescope mounts already in place, the students collected sunlight to answer a variety of scientific questions. One group, for example, used the sun as a light source for detecting oil impurities on metal. Another looked at different areas of the sun to detect temperature variations.

Besides operating their spectrographs, the students made three presentations during the competition. They explained how they designed and built their spectrographs. They talked about an outreach event they held. They presented their scientific results.

"I think they are all winners for having done this competition, for participating and for coming to Bozeman," said contest director Randy Larimer.

Larimer is deputy director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium which is organizing three competitions as a way to carry out education and public outreach for the IRIS mission which involved several MSU scientists headed by MSU solar physicist Charles Kankelborg. The first competition - a pilot competition - was held last year at MSU. A third National Student Solar Spectrograph Competition will be held May 15-18, 2013 at MSU.

Categories and winners of this year's competition were:

Best Science Observation Award -- Montgomery College in Rockville, Md. Team members were Michael Satinu and Yosheph Feseha, both of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; John Silk of Bethesda, Md.; and Lampouguin Yenkoidiok-Douti of Hahotoe, Togo. Team advisers were Carrie Fitzgerald and Ryan Fitzgerald.

Best Presentation of Results Award -- San Diego State University. Team members were Heath Kirkwood, Scott Patterson, Michael Baude and Emily Mitchell, all of San Diego; and Kenny Sokolowski of Big Bear, Calif. Team adviser was Matt Anderson.

Best Spectrograph Design Award -- team "Darkstar" from MSU. Team members were Ethan Keeler of Butte, Mont.; Courtney Peck of Sidney, Mont.; Drew Moen of Whitefish, Mont.; and Chris Zimny of Billings, Mont. Team adviser was Kevin Repasky.

Best Spectrograph Build Award -- "The Greek Team" from MSU. Team members were Jamesen Motley of Kalispell, Mont; Ginny Price of Rapid City, S.D.; Dave Riesland of Miles City, Mont.; and Jeff Ibey of Bozeman, Mont. Team adviser was Nathan Pust.

Honorable mention categories and winners were:

The Highest Demonstrated Resolution with Largest Bandwidth Award -- the Harding Solar Spectroscopy Group from Harding University at Searcy, Ark.

The Most Fun Science Award -- the Flathead Valley Community College Spectrogeeks.

The Largest Number of Spectrographs in the Smallest Amount of Time Award -- "Rowland's Dark Scintillations" from MSU.

Spectrographs are optical instruments that collect sunlight and separate out the wavelengths. Prisms are a simple form of spectrograph that breaks apart visible light, producing rainbows on walls and other surfaces. Other types of spectrographs, such as IRIS, break apart ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans.

IRIS consists of a telescope and spectrograph working together to help scientists figure out how energy is transferred through the sun's atmosphere. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics built the telescope that allows the IRIS spectrograph to observe the sun. MSU supplied the spectrograph optics and participated in its design. The spectrograph team is headed by Lockheed Martin.

IRIS, once launched, will face the sun at all times, orbit the Earth at least three years and gather images from the sun's chromosphere and transition region, Kankelborg said. The transition region is invisible from the ground. During a total eclipse of the sun, the chromosphere is seen as a thin red layer of atmosphere just above the bright yellow photosphere.

Prize money for the four main categories in the spectrograph competition came from education and public outreach funds connected to the NASA IRIS mission. Richardson Gratings donated gratings for each team in the competition, allowing the students to spend their money on other things needed to build their spectrographs, Larimer said. Gratings break sunlight down into wavelengths.

College students interested in designing a spectrograph can now register for next year's competition. Build awards of $2,000 per team are available for teams that register by Sept. 30. Registration and more information is available at

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or