Finding Trans-Neptunian objects in Dark Energy Survey data

Matthew and student team




Associate Professor and Undergraduate Chair

Project Summary

Over the course of the research experience provided to me by PURM and Dr. Sako, I was able to experience nearly the full lifecycle of research, from determining project goals to finalizing results. My project specifically was to find Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs, aiming to, at best, discover ‘Planet Nine’, a predicted theoretical planet at the far reaches of our solar system. The data used from the project came from the Dark Energy Survey (DES), which has captured many thousands of fast-moving objects, despite not being intended for solar system observation. Using Python scripts and other programming tools, we isolated these desirable objects from the data, which largely contained stationary sources. Much of the work was done using a friends of friends algorithm, which groups all detections that are neighbors of one another together. Having obtained desirable groups that had small changes in time, we applied further sifting and sorting to whittle down to a few final candidates, which we then plotted and compared against the original data. Thus, I ended up where I started – looking at tiny images of point sources captured in the sky, only now these objects all had meaning and connections instead of being a huge mass of random detections in the sky. Through completing this research, I learned how difficult it can be to manage time in a research setting where there are numerous subtasks and smaller goals that need to be accomplished besides the main one. Frequently, I had to assist other members of the team or work on optimizing other code or complete smaller assignments, all of which had to come before the main project due to their urgent needs. However, these tasks always helped me in my own work, allowing me to solidify or expand my knowledge of programming concepts or my understanding of the complex data we were working with. Working with Dr. Sako was a rare opportunity that gave me the chance to apply and greatly expand programming skills without using classroom time that I would much rather spend on physics and theoretical pursuits.