May 20, 2013 | Amanda Greenhoe

Sam Van Kooten and Dan Van Noord will continue researching asteroid collisions and contact binary stars.

For juniors Sam Van Kooten and Dan Van Noord, a NASA-funded fellowship is at least a twice-in-a-lifetime experience. The student researchers were each recently granted a $2,500 undergraduate fellowship from the Michigan Space Grant Consortium (MSGC)—for the second time.

Last summer, Van Kooten’s grant-funded research focused on asteroid collision, and Van Noord studied contact binary stars—stars that orbit in close proximity. This summer, the duo is back to further their research on those topics and prepare their studies for publication, alongside physics professors Larry Molnar and Steve Steenwyk.

But even as the duo works on publishing their results, neither would describe their work as wrapping up. For one, their research is on a historical continuum, building on what others in the field of astronomy have done and propelling some of what will be studied in the future. The same is true of astronomy at Calvin: Van Kooten and Van Noord inherited some of their research from professors and students before them, and their summer work will likely make ripples in the department’s work for years.

Great facilities, great mentoring

The pair attribute much of their success at Calvin to the resources they’ve had access to: Van Kooten mentions a small student-to-faculty ratio, and Van Noord focuses on the high caliber equipment the college offers student astronomers.

“We’ve been able to advance some areas that haven’t been studied very much because we have the time and we have the resources to do it,” Van Noord says, specifically referencing Calvin’s telescopes: one on campus and one used remotely from Rehoboth, New Mexico.

Van Noord explains the process of using telescopes in the field: “Ordinarily you apply for and get maybe twelve hours of time on a really big telescope to work on your projects.” Having control over two telescopes, he says, allows more freedom for Calvin astronomers.

Both Van Kooten and Van Noord had the chance to travel with Molnar and Steenwyk last summer on one of Calvin’s yearly maintenance trips to the Rehoboth telescope, which entailed everything from cleaning the telescope’s mirror to dusting the entire dome. In this way, Van Kooten and Van Noord were able to do hands-on work with equipment they use remotely for their research.

The student-researchers have one more year at Calvin and then plan to go on to graduate school, preparing for careers in teaching, research or a combination of the two. They feel equipped for what is ahead.

“I don’t know of many other undergraduate institutions that do research like we do,” Van Noord says.

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