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Bailey College of Science and Mathematics

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Statistics Students Take Infrared Video of the Moon

Students set up the telescope and computer system at White Mountain Research Center in August.


Cal Poly statistics students may have been the first in the world to take thermal, infrared, digital video of the moon from Earth's surface. Flir Systems Inc. donated an infrared video camera that students connected to a telescope. They then took the telescope system to White Mountain Research Center near Bishop, Calif., and spent the month of August recording the surface temperature of the moon.

"How quickly the temperature of the moon changes as it rotates helps us figure out the thermal and physical properties of the moon. Based on those properties, we can get a pretty good idea of what the lunar surface is made of," said Statistics Professor Gary Hughes, who conceived of the research project.

Because the moon's composition is already known, Hughes and the students are using the moon as a test case for a thermal mapping technique. If the students' analysis matches existing conclusions, they might be able to use the same technique to learn what asteroids are made of. If an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, it would be far less expensive to learn about that asteroid from the planet's surface than to send a probe to take a sample in space.

"My time at White Mountain embodies Cal Poly's Learn by Doing motto," said Kyle Beekman, a statistics major. "When you are in the process of collecting data, you have to be prepared for all manner of delays and sudden problems. Some might complain about these problems, but I see them as a learning experience."

Students are developing the thermal map from scratch, and they have some big data to wade through on the way there — 1.94 terabytes to be exact. That's about two million times the size of anything they see in class.

"This project gives them a chance to figure out how to tackle that volume of data," Hughes said. "And because they collected the data themselves, they'll have more insight into how to analyze it."

One of the first tasks is to write a computer program that detects the edge of the moon in each frame of video so that the computer can track where the moon is from frame to frame — no small feat with 30 frames per second during twelve full days of lunar observations.

"It has been an interesting challenge trying to write a program that can deal with large amounts of data at once," said Beekman. "The main thing I learned is that dealing with a lot of data takes a lot of time."

Once the computer can register which pixels in each frame contain the picture of the moon, students will process all of the video files and create an average frame for each 15-second period. The averaged frames can then be used to understand surface thermal properties. With that information, they can figure out the make-up of the moon.

"Finding the edge of the moon — you're not going to do that in a typical stats class," said Hughes.

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