Many visitors to Cayman come to sit in the sun, not so many come to study it.
A group of students from Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg University joined a summer course in solar physics and digital solar imaging at the University College of the Cayman Islands this week.
UCCI has started a partnership with the college which allows students at both schools to take courses at either institution. So far, most of that crossover has happened online.
But the week-long credit course is the first time U.S. students have visited UCCI to study.
Part of the appeal is Bill Hrudey’s observatory, which specializes in observing and taking digital images of the sun.
Mr. Hrudey said the course was an introduction to the techniques involved in monitoring what he describes as “the weather in space.”
“One of the best things we [have] to offer here is the observatory where we do a lot of solar work,” he said. “The idea was to expose the students to something they could not get anywhere else.
“We are the only place in the Caribbean that has this kind of facility.”
The course also involves three local students and is being co-taught by visiting astrophysicists, Dr. Shirin Haque, from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad, and Dr. Ed Guinan from Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Hrudey, who built many of the telescopes in the observatory, said, “When I first started using it, I realized there was so much we can do. I can’t possibly do all of it so let’s pick one thing and do it well. “So I turned this into a solar digital observing facility.”
He said the weather in space has surprising implications for life on earth.
Coronal mass ejections – huge solar explosions that can launch a billion tons of plasma from the sun’s surface into space at speeds of over a million miles per hour – can send radiation that impacts telecommunications on earth.
One such eruption impacted communications networks in South East Asia last week. A particularly severe ejection could disrupt satellites, affecting GPS and other important technological infrastructure.
How solar telescopes and specialist software are used to monitor such activity is part of the course.
“It is like a hurricane watch in space,” said Mr. Hrudey.
Sam Benigni, a professor from Harrisburg University traveling with the group of seven students, said the trip had already been a great experience.
“We were excited to learn UCCI was offering this workshop and in a location where some of the best solar imaging in the world is happening, right here on this campus with Dr. Hrudey,” Mr. Benigni said.
“The idea is to give them a feel for how astronomical images are acquired and processed. We are not going to become experts this week – it is a start,” he added.
Micah Burton, one of the visiting students, said, “I am interested in seeing how astronomers take their images and manipulate them to get the pictures you see online, and then study the science behind it based on those pictures.”
Hannah Tucci, another of the group, said, “This workshop has been very interesting for me. As a kid, I would always look at NASA’s photo of the day, every day.
“It is really interesting to look at the software and learn how to use that software to put these photos online.”
The visit also involves some cultural exchange activities, including a trip to Stingray City, a visit to the solar farm in Bodden Town, a Cayman fish fry and a talk on Cayman history from UCCI president Roy Bodden.