National Science Foundation EAGER grant funding

A person with chin-length reddish hair, glasses, a green shirt and striped pants is smiling as they hold a glass plate over an open, tabletop scanner.
Olina Liang places a plate on the Yerkes' Epson 12000XL to be digitized.

In November 2019, University of Chicago received a National Science Foundation Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant (AST-2101781) to research, analyze and develop methods and procedures that utilize low-barrier/financially accessible equipment to digitize glass plates for scientific and historical use, investigate and develop a simplified approach to transcribing complex data from logbooks, and to determine how to make data from plates and logbooks accessible and usable by researchers and historians worldwide.

The goal of this grant is to facilitate time-domain astronomy by establishing a set of scalable and cost-effective practices to promote the digitization of data held in astronomical glass plate collections around the world. These efforts will unlock hundreds of years worth of irreplaceable, unreproducible astronomical observations and make them broadly available to researchers across disciplines.

Featured research results

Plate 8 of the Barnard Atlas. Taken by E.E. Barnard at Mount Wilson in 1905.

Digitization, Measurement, and Analysis of a 1905 Barnard Atlas Photographic Plate

Rowen Glusman et al 2022 PASP 134 094503

Published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (2022), this paper details improvements on methods to produce scientifically useful scans of astronomical photographic plates using cost-effective tools and equipment. Specifically, the authors examine the effects of the scanning method on magnitude measurements, discuss difficulties encountered when measuring the magnitudes of stars in crowded fields, and present a case study of red supergiant stars. This work produced a catalog of 66,000 measurements of stellar positions and magnitudes in the central 6.8°× 6.8° field of view. This catalog can be accessed at Knowledge@UChicago.

Plate Ry 60, taken by George Ritchey on August 19, 1903

Precise Photometric Measurements from a 1903 Photographic Plate Using a Commercial Scanner

William Cerny et al 2021 PASP 133 044501

Published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (2021), this paper demonstrates the feasibility of determining the magnitude of stars on archival photographic plates using a commercially available scanner. This low cost approach expands the scientific potential to study variable stars in the archives of observatory plate collections. Using their developed method on this plate (Ry60), students may have identified a heretofore unknown supernova in the spiral galaxy NGC 7331.

Support for this project comes from the National Science Foundation (Grant AST-2101781), University of Chicago College Innovation Fund, John Crerar Foundation, Kathleen and Howard Zar Science Library Fund, Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and Yerkes Future Foundation.