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【Top Summer Program】My Path among Stars in SSP

Background Info.

Summer Science program: SSP originates in the Cold War period in 1959. The SSP astrophysics program admits 72 students for a 39-day camp. The admission rate is about 9% this year, resembling those of prestigious US universities. This number goes even lower for a Chinese applicant: averagely there is a maximum of 2 Chinese admitted every year.


The 72 students will be distributed evenly between two campuses: Colorado University of Boulder and New Mexico Tech. Professors and TAs lead 36 students to determine the orbit of an asteroid in groups of three.  

Orbital DeterminationOD):Our mission across the summer prepared by all the lectures and programming. In this project, we do astrometry and photometry for the images taken by CCD mounted on the telescope. All the data are processed by programs we write and eventually we will obtain the orbital elements and their uncertainties of the asteroid.


Sommers–Bausch ObservatorySBOis where we learn, program and observe.



On the morning of June 25th, I arrived at the Denver Int’l Airport on a delayed flight. Laura and Tanay welcomed me to the warm community, SSP.


credit to SSP

Arrival Day



Academic preparations dominate SSP. For many people, celestial coordinates and programming might be the hardiest tasks, and the Orbital Determination is the final product. But for me, immersing in SSP not only taught me knowledge in mathematics, physics, computer science and astronomy field, but also had me experience authentic American culture. 

Dr. Furutani who graduated from Stanford and Dr. D from Cornell are the Academic directors for SSP’s campus in Colorado University of Boulder. Their lessons are a lot more than pure knowledge, they compose fun activities, cold jokes, the burning desire of students to learn and crazy “roasting” of eminent historical figures.


credit to Madeline Wang

Photo with Dr. D

 SSP was quite a hard issue for me as a quiet kid. It caused me so much trouble in understanding American jokes and working on problem sets alone. However, as time pass by, I adapted the lifestyle. My English skyrocketed with the passionate help of all my friends. I then started to learn the jokes, to “roast” people and to work with my asteroid group. 

Normally, we spend our self-study time in the computer lab. The SBO is equipped with “High-tech” computers that play videos frame by frame along with Linux system. When the clock striking twenty-one, there exist no quiet room, only a lab full of laughter, discussion, pop music and eating sneakily. 


credit to Zhiyu Yao

Computer Lab

 Question of the Day(QOD) that challenges your IQ and EQ is many people’s favorite. They wait until midnight for the TAs to post them.  


credit to Cyndia Cao

I was the champion for the first week of QOD


credit to Zhiyu Yao

“Best Cow QOD”My drawing is pined at the lower left side.

We have problem sets that excite every inch of your nerve. They cover topics from massive calculation of asteroids’ velocity vector and position vector to disgusting estimation of how much a gorilla excretes.

Every week, each asteroid group of three would obtain one to three chances to observe on the telescope deck. While waiting for the CCD camera to finish exposure, we play cards, we sing, we dance. Centering and focusing the telescope and taking lights, darks and flats become our second nature. CU Boulder’s night sky is decorated by numerous shiny dots; they remind us of modesty. 

credit to Zhiyu Yao

Telescope Apollo

 Every once a while, we meet a guest speaker. They come from many fields ranging from plasma scientists who has been working on Voyager, Juno and New Horizon to even an experimental Physicist who is also a Nobel Laureate.


credit to Madeline Wang

Picture with Nobel Laureate in Physics 2001


SSP invites parents to attend College Roundtable where TAs introduce college life and experience to us and MIT’s Admission Officer attempts to promote their school to us. 

Things that we learn in SSP sound as if I am exaggerating. We had seven 3-hour lectures to learn about OD, yet Dr. D attempted to delineate all electromagnetism through graduate lessons in a morning. I have indeed concerned about what I should do before attending the program, then I realize in the end that what truly matters is one’s attitude towards studying, research and science. 

In the end, the academic part of SSP became such an enjoyment that I felt like floating on a sea of M&Ms. We still struggle in lectures to be awake, to eat mints sneakily, to do some pranks for pure fun… Time is lubricated by honey, however we cherish it, the day of tears eventually came at Dr. Fu’s final lecture.


credit to Zhiyu Yao

Asteroid 138846(2000 CJ61), shot on observation deck

Jokes halt when we were handed the OD work sheet. We have to finish the OD program, Minor Planet Center report and the final OD report in merely a week. We are like headless chickens initially, but our passion and persistency keep all of us going when the Jupyter notebook is constantly reporting errors, when the jackknife method makes us question our lives and even when the work sheet is full of incorrect signs. Looking at the six orbital elements of our asteroid, I was so satisfied towards the product of my 39 days. They not only show the trajectory of the asteroid, but also that of mine.


credit to Zhiyu Yao

Final OD Report

 In the end, I will give some suggestions to future SSPers. First, finish all the writing questions as soon as you are given the problem set, since it leaves you ample time for programming. Finally, enjoy SSP, 39 days are only a cherished glimpse of time.


credit to Zhiyu Yao

Shot while taking images for Pretty Picture(M16)




There are much more things to do in SSP other than academics. 

The dining hall (C4C) in CUB is always full of surprise with its great variety of food. The whole C4C is split into 8 sections: Asian Shipin, Salad & sandwich, Italian Cibo, grilled station, sushi, South-American, Kosher and dessert. Because it is a buffet canteen, you can basically choose anything you like to eat. No matter if you are a vegan, a vegetarian (like me), or a Jewish who cannot intake carbohydrates, you can find all kinds of food that fits your requirement by just looking at the labels.


credit to Zhiyu Yao

shot at C4C  

However, most SSPers sleep through their breakfast time(After the first week, you can only spot less than 10 people at breakfast). Lunch time is free, but then supper time is rather strict. It starts at 5:30 sharp, and everyone is required to dress in a semi-formal style. Every week, each one of us will be assigned to different tables, where you can get to meet new teachers and classmates. You wouldn’t want to play your cellphone at supper; everything is so fun: “Word Assassin” games, ice-cream time, fun conversations…


PLAYING is also a HUGE feature of being in SSP. Our teaching assistants who are from Caltech organized a lot of small fun games, and we can decide whether to take part in those games. You can join small games like a basketball match, or frisbee; also, there are bigger games like “Find the flag”. In this game, the students are split into two teams, and each team hide their flag in a rather complicated terrain. Some people in the group are appointed to steal the other group’s flag, and some stay around their own group’s site, waiting to catch their rivals and put them into “jail”. 

SSPers are encouraged to work hard and play hard. We have “mandatory fun” time: everyone must take part in field trips, bowling, and shopping. In the field trips, we went to Lockheed Martin; we also explored the geology of the Rocky Mountains; and we should have been to see the unpolluted Milky way in a small town called Netherland (due of the bad weather it did not happen). International students like me get to appreciate the beautiful scenery in the US during these trips.  


credit to Zhiyu Yao

“Mandatory” Bowling  

In SSP, you are free from 4:30pm to 5:30pm, and from 6:40pm to 2:00am. Of course, most people choose to occupy themselves with tons of homework in these periods. Those who finish their homework quickly will choose to have some fun after 12:00am. Therefore, you can see students playing card games, or swing dancing, or throwing a snacks party at midnight. SSP may not crack your head by its intense academics, but you really would need to sort out your sleeping issues, since there are only four and a half hours of curfew. 

At last, there is our SSP talent show. It is compulsory for every SSPers to perform on the show, so you would definitely need some special talents before you come to SSP. Don’t worry too much about that, though — you can always join other students and perform as a group.


credit to Zhiyu Yao

Faculties performing during Talent Show

Is there cannibalism in SSP?”

“Well...It is not our fault.”



My admission to SSP is a total surprise for me. It surely weights a lot in gaining knowledge, but it worths more as a compass in my life. Everyone gets uneasy when they first arrive at SSP; but only when you have actually accomplished it, and look back at what you have done, can you find out how greatly it has shaped you. 

There isn’t a formula for SSP admission: SSP only admits those who really suits SSP. Once there was a student who got confused about why she got admitted into SSP, and the answer she got was: “you are born to be a SSPer.” 

True! I felt that I belonged to SSP. It is like a big family— every teacher is a kind parent, every TA is a helpful big brother or sister, and every fellow SSPer is your closest sibling. In this family, everyone will help you grow, and everyone works towards the same goal as yours. As the SSP motto goes, SSP offers every student “An Educational Experience of a lifetime”. 

At the day we departed for home, the teachers said to us: “You are not leaving SSP; you are joining a proud group of some 2500 alumni. In this group, there are members from 17 years old to 77 years old, and every single one of them is successful.” 

And that, is the confidence an SSPer possesses.


credit to Addison Zhang

Picture with classmates before final formal dinner


credit to Laura Corley

SSP Class of 2017 CU Boulder



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