Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

Courant Explores History of Astronomy at Wesleyan Ahead of Centennial Celebration

cam_vvo_2013-0102225113Ahead of the centennial celebration of Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory, The Hartford Courant explored a bit of observatory history, including some recent discoveries of rare artifacts.

A team of Wesleyan professors and students, together with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, is preparing for an exhibit this spring, “Under Connecticut Skies: Exploring 100 Years of Astronomy at Van Vleck Observatory in Middletown, Connecticut.”

“We’ve been looking into every nook and cranny to see what we have here,” Associate Professor of History Paul Erickson told the Courant. One exciting find: a rare early mechanical model of the solar system, long believed to be lost, known as “Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Planetarium or Columbian Orrery.” Back in the 1830s, the device traveled the country in a wagon to be exhibited to big crowds.

According to the story:

Some of the other finds include an early 18th century French refractor telescope and a late 19th century mechanical calculating machine known as “the Millionaire.” The Swiss-made machine was employed in the principal research of the observatory, attempting to calculate stellar distances. “Astronomy involves a lot of number crunching, so this was a very useful tool before the computer,” Erickson said.

Of particular interest is the observatory guestbook, which records the visits of world-famous astronomers, such as Harlow Shapley, the first scientist to correctly estimate the size of the Milky Way, and Edwin Powell Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named. There is also a visit in the 1920s of a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born astrophysicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Read more about a project to restore the Van Vleck Refractor telescope here. The project is set to wrap up this summer.

Study by Redfield, Johnson ’11 Published in Astrophysical Journal, New Scientist

Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, and Marshall Johnson ’11 are the co-authors of an article titled “The Interstellar Medium in the Kepler Search Volume,” published in The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 802, No. 2, July 2015. The article highlights ways scientists are studying the gas and dust in the galaxy near where the Kepler Space Telescope is discovering exoplanets.

“Stars, with planets, can interact with the gas surrounding them in interesting ways, like bubbles in a drink, where each of the bubbles is an individual star (perhaps with planets) and the drink is the ‘interstellar medium’, the gas in between the stars,” Redfield explained.

In addition, The New Scientist published an article on Aug. 6 titled, “Distant worlds could be sheltering in a bubble around their star,” which focuses on the authors’ Astrophysical Journal study. It reads:

Distant planets may be swaddled in a protective bubble of magnetism and charged particles, courtesy of their parent star. The first study to scrutinize these so-called astrospheres shows that some exoplanets are more well shielded than Earth, others not so lucky – and that their protection can be fickle.

Within our solar system, the sun’s wind of charged particles and radiation forms a bubble called the heliosphere, which repels cosmic rays that can affect Earth’s weather, eat away at the ozone layer and damage DNA. Likewise, astrospheres guard faraway worlds from the ravages of the cosmos, says Marshall C. Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin.

An astrosphere’s size is determined partly by the strength of the star’s winds, and partly by the surrounding interstellar medium of gas and dust. The star’s velocity through the galaxy also has an effect.

“It’s just like if you are driving and you stick your hand out the window. You will experience higher pressure on your hand when you are driving fast than when you are driving slowly,” Johnson says. “If there is a greater relative velocity between the star and the interstellar medium, there will be a greater pressure exerted on the astrosphere.”

Johnson is working on his PhD in astronomy at the University of Texas in Austin. Marshall and Redfield had gone together in 2010-11 to observe at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas, and this project grew out of this work.

Another co-author on the paper, Adam Jensen, was a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan between 2010-2013 and was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Bow Shock Study by Redfield, Cauley Published in Astrophysical Journal

Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, and Wilson Cauley, postdoctoral researcher in astronomy, led the effort on a paper titled “Optical hydrogen absorption consistent with a thin bow shock leading the hot Jupiter HD 189733b” accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Wilson Cauley, postdoctoral researcher in astronomy, created a animation that shows the transit of bow shock material as it crosses a stellar disk, and the absorption values the model predicts. Cauley's study demonstrates an exciting path forward in attempting to measure exoplanet magnetic fields. 

Wilson Cauley, postdoctoral researcher in astronomy, created a animation that shows the transit of bow shock material as it crosses a stellar disk, and the absorption values the model predicts. Cauley’s study demonstrates an exciting path forward in attempting to measure exoplanet magnetic fields.

Bow shocks are ubiquitous astrophysical phenomena resulting from the supersonic passage of an object through a gas. In this paper, the authors present a robust detection of a time-resolved pre-transit, as well as in-transit, absorption signature around the hot Jupiter exoplanet HD 189733b using high spectral resolution observations of several hydrogen lines.

Better knowledge of exoplanet magnetic field strengths is crucial to understanding the role these fields play in planetary evolution and the potential development of life on planets in the habitable zone.

Cauley’s research is funded at Wesleyan through the National Science Foundation to study the extended atmospheres of exoplanets. For more information and to view a animation that summarizes the paper’s results, visit Cauley’s website.

In addition, Redfield and Cauley will present results from an observation made at the largest telescopes in the world, the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, during the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in August.

 

Students Share Summer Research at Poster Session

On July 30, Wesleyan’s Summer Research Poster Session took place at Exley Science Center. More than 110 undergraduate research fellows from Math and Computer Sciences, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, the Quantitative Analysis Center, and Psychology presented research at the event. (Photos by Laurie Kenney)

Aidan Bardos ’17 presented her research titled "The Effects of Nutrition on the Immune Response of Wooly Bear Caterpillars Infected by Parasitoid Wasps." Bardos' faculty advisor is Michael Singer, associate professor of biology and environmental studies.

Aidan Bardos ’17 presented her research titled “The Effects of Nutrition on the Immune Response of Wooly Bear Caterpillars Infected by Parasitoid Wasps.” Bardos’ faculty advisor is Michael Singer, associate professor of biology and associate professor of environmental studies.

A poster titled "Immunohistochemical Analysis of Status Epilepticus Mice Treated with Striatal-Enriched Tyrosine Phosphatase Inhibitor" was presented by Matt Pelton ’17. His advisor is Janice Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.

A poster titled “Immunohistochemical Analysis of Status Epilepticus Mice Treated with Striatal-Enriched Tyrosine Phosphatase Inhibitor” was presented by Matt Pelton ’17. His advisor is Janice Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.

7 Faculty Promoted, 1 Awarded Tenure

In its most recent meeting, the Board of Trustees conferred tenure on Hari Krishnan, associate professor of dance. He joins seven other faculty members who were awarded tenure earlier this spring.

In addition, seven faculty members were promoted to Full Professor: Mary Alice Haddad, professor of government; Scott Higgins, professor of film studies; Tsampikos Kottos, professor of physics; Edward Moran, professor of astronomy; Dana Royer, professor of earth and environmental sciences; Mary-Jane Rubenstein, professor of religion; and Gina Athena Ulysse, professor of anthropology.

Brief descriptions of their research and teaching appear below.

Associate Professor Krishnan teaches studio- and lecture-based dance courses on Mobilizing Dance: Cinema, the Body, and Culture in South Asia; Modern Dance 3; and Bharata Natyam.  His academic and choreographic interests include queering the dancing body, critical readings of Indian dance and the history of courtesan dance traditions in South India. He is a scholar and master of historical Bharatanatyam and also an internationally acclaimed choreographer of contemporary dance from global perspectives.

Professor Haddad teaches courses about comparative, East Asian, and environmental politics. She has authored two books, Building Democracy in Japan and Politics and Volunteering in Japan: A Global Perspective, and co-edited a third, NIMBY is Beautiful: Local Activism and Environmental Innovation in Germany and Beyond. She is currently working on a book about effective advocacy and East Asian environmental politics.

Professor Higgins teaches courses in film history, theory, and genre, and is a 2011 recipient of Wesleyan’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  His research interests include moving-image aesthetics, feature and serial storytelling, and cinema’s technological history. He is author of Harnessing the Rainbow: Technicolor Aesthetics in the 1930s and Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial (forthcoming), and editor of Arnheim for Film and Media Studies.

Professor Kottos offers courses on Quantum Mechanics; Condensed Matter Physics; and Advanced Topics in Theoretical Physics. He has published more than 100 papers on the understanding of wave propagation in complex media, which have received more than 3,000 citations. His current research focuses on the development of non-Hermitian Optics. This year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has recognized his theoretical proposal on optical limiters as a high priority strategic goal of the agency.

Professor Moran teaches introductory courses such as Descriptive Astronomy and The Dark Side of the Universe, in addition to courses on observational and extragalactic astronomy.  His research focuses on extragalactic X-ray sources and the X-ray background, and his expertise in spectroscopic instrumentation combined with an insightful conceptual appreciation of galaxy formation have positioned him as a leader in observational black hole research.

Professor Royer offers courses on Environmental Studies; Geobiology; and Soils.  His research explores how plants can be used to reconstruct ancient environments, and the (paleo-) physiological underpinnings behind these plant-environment relationships.  His recent work on the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and climate over geologic time has had significant impact on the field of paleoclimatology.

Professor Rubenstein teaches courses in philosophy of religion; pre- and postmodern theologies; and the intersections of religion, sex, gender, and science.  Her research interests include continental philosophy, theology, gender and sexuality studies, and the history and philosophy of cosmology.  She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe, and Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse.

Professor Ulysse offers courses on Crafting Ethnography; Haiti: Between Anthropology and Journalism; Key Issues in Black Feminism; and Theory 2: Beyond Me, Me, Me: Reflexive Anthropology. Her research examines black diasporic conditions. Her recent work combines scholarship, performance, and exposition to ponder the fate of Haiti in the modern world and how it is narrated in different outlets and genres.  She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica, and Why Haiti Needs New Narratives.

Graduate Student Factor Studies Planet Formation Around a Young Star

Sam Factor, a graduate student in astronomy, at the Submillimeter Array, located on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i in March 2015.

Sam Factor, a graduate student in astronomy, at the Submillimeter Array, located on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i in March 2015.

#THISISWHY
In this News @ Wesleyan story, we speak with Sam Factor ’14, a graduate student in astronomy.

Q: Sam, congratulations on completing your master’s thesis in astronomy! We understand you took your first astronomy class in the fall of your senior year at Wesleyan. What was your undergraduate major and how did your late-developing interest in astronomy come about?

A: Thank you very much! As an undergrad, I majored in physics and computer science. During the fall of my senior year I took Introductory Astronomy (ASTR 155). I signed up for the course mainly because I wanted an interesting and relatively easy course to fill out my schedule. I had been interested in astronomy since I was very young, but had never taken a formal class. I absolutely loved the class and decided to apply to the BA/MA program.

Q: How and when did you decide to stay on at Wesleyan to pursue a master’s degree in astronomy?

A: I actually decided to apply to the BA/MA program only a few weeks before the application was due!

Seager Delivers Sturm Memorial Lecture

On April 29, Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke on “The Search for Earth 2.0” at the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture. (Photos by Dat Vu ’15)

Seager is a pioneer in the field of exoplanets, specifically in characterizing the atmospheres and searching for life on those distant worlds. Her talk addressed the age-old question: "Are we alone?"

Seager is a pioneer in the field of exoplanets, specifically in characterizing the atmospheres and searching for life on those distant worlds. Her talk addressed the age-old question: “Are we alone?”

Seager to Deliver Sturm Memorial Lecture April 29 on “Search for Earth 2.0”

Sara Seager of MIT will address the age old question: “Are we alone?” when she delivers the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture April 29.

Sara Seager of MIT will address the age old question: “Are we alone?” when she delivers the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture April 29.

Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will deliver the Sturm Memorial Lecture at 8 p.m. on April 29. She will speak in CFA Hall on “The Search for Earth 2.0.”

Seager is a pioneer in the field of exoplanets, specifically in characterizing the atmospheres and searching for life on those distant worlds. Her talk will address the age-old question: “Are we alone?”

Wesleyan’s “Observatory Nights” Featured on Local Media

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

The Hartford Courant and WNPR both featured stories on Wesleyan’s “observatory nights,” which began this month. Every Wednesday night at 8 p.m. during the Spring semester, the Van Vleck Observatory will open its doors to the public, rain or shine, for viewing of the sky through telescopes and presentations on the latest space-related research.

According to the Courant, Research Assistant Professor of Astronomy Roy Kilgard said the department is seeking to supplement its outreach to groups already interested and involved in science with new sessions for people who may not have a high level of knowledge about space and astronomy.

“We’re really trying to grow it beyond looking through the telescopes,” Kilgard said.

Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, works with students on a small radio telescope, located on the roof of the Van Vleck Observatory.

Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, works with students on a small radio telescope, located on the roof of the Van Vleck Observatory.

Assistant Professor of Astronomy Meredith Hughes told WNPR:

“It’s actually pretty amazing that in the middle of a city, we can see a ton of beautiful things in the night sky.”

“For example, tonight,” Hughes said, “our list of cool objects to observe — if the weather is good enough — includes Jupiter; the Orion nebula, which is a million years old — which sounds old, but is actually very young in stellar terms — a stellar nursery where stars are being born; we have the Beehive Cluster, which is a cluster of stars that is relatively recently formed; and the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest neighbor galaxy to our own.”

Beginning Feb. 20, there will also be special “Kids’ Nights” on the first and third Friday of every month where topics will be tailored for children, according to the Courant. Graduate student Jesse Shanahan will run the kids program, which will cover topics including the life cycle of a star, black holes, comets and an introduction to our solar system.

Astronomy Department Hosts Public Stargazing, Space Discovery Presentations

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

Beginning Feb. 4, Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory will open to the public every Wednesday night, rain or shine, for presentations by faculty and students on the latest space-related discoveries, as well as a chance for everyone to view the sky through a telescope, weather permitting.

The program will start at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. Presentations are intended to be accessible to visitors of all ages, although aimed primarily at high school level and above.

Students Represent Wesleyan at Keck Astronomy Consortium

huntdorn

Conor Hunt ’16, pictured in the back, left corner, and Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein ’15, pictured in the center, represented Wesleyan as student speakers at the 2014 Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium.

Conor Hunt ’16, Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein ’15, Girish Duvvuri ’17, Coady Johnson ’15 represented Wesleyan as student speakers at the 2014 Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium held at Swarthmore College on Nov. 8.

A total of five faculty members and eight students from the Astronomy Department, including Greg Schulman ’17, currently at Clark University, joined colleagues from around the northeast at this annual event.

Scholarship Helps Lieman-Sifry ’15 Study Gas Planet Formation

Jesse Lieman-Sifry '15 visited the Sub Millimeter Array in Hawaii this summer to help observe, learn about how radio astronomy data is collected, and see the array of antennas up close. Lieman-Sifry recently received a $5,000 Undergraduate Directed Campus Scholarship from the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium to support his ongoing research on gas planet formation.

Jesse Lieman-Sifry ’15 visited the Sub Millimeter Array in Hawaii this summer to help observe, learn about how radio astronomy data is collected, and see the array of antennas up close. Lieman-Sifry recently received a $5,000 Undergraduate Directed Campus Scholarship from the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium to support his ongoing research on gas planet formation.

 #THISISWHY

For the past year and a half, Jesse Lieman-Sifry ’15, an astronomy and physics double major, has focused his undergraduate research on understanding the formation of gas planets. This month, Lieman-Sifry received a $5,000 Undergraduate Directed Campus Scholarship from the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, funded by NASA. The award will be applied to his financial aid package and support his ongoing research in the Astronomy Department.

Jesse Lieman-Sifry uses data to model the dust and gas on a specific star system called 49 Ceti.

Jesse Lieman-Sifry uses data to model the dust and gas on a specific star system called 49 Ceti. 49 Ceti is visible to the naked eye.

Planets form in disks of gas and dust left over from the formation of a star. For gas planets, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, a massive rocky core must solidify before accumulation of gas can begin.

“In the 10 million years we assume it takes this rocky core to form, most of the gas has been blown away by the energy from the hot central star. This would suggest that it is very hard to form gas planets, as the timeline for these processes don’t line up,” Lieman-Sifry explained. “Something about this picture isn’t quite right though, as the planet-hunting Kepler mission has revealed that gas planets are actually very common around other stars in the Milky Way.”

Lieman-Sifry is working with high-resolution data collected by the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. The data, provided from radio interferometers,