Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

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

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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, 

Hughes Finds Magnetic Fields in Stardust; Study Published in Nature

Assistant professor of Astronomy Meredith Hughes and eight colleagues have found evidence of magnetic fields in stardust – an indication that magnetic fields are important in the process of planetary system formation, according to a new paper in the journal Nature.

The discovery is another step in work by Hughes and other astronomers to understand how celestial bodies are formed. It is known that magnetic fields in the “accretion disks” of stars play a dominant role in the star formation process.

Meredith Hughes

Meredith Hughes

Using data from an observatory near Bishop, Calf., Hughes and her colleagues were able to spot signs of magnetic fields in the dust of the disk of a star about 300 light years away. While magnetic fields have been detected in regions that represent the very earliest stages of star formation (the so-called Class 0 and Class I stages), this is the first time they have been seen around a star with an older age closer to when we believe planetary systems form.

“This is an important result,” Hughes said. “It’s the first time that we’ve seen magnetic fields this late in the process of star and planet formation. And like any good scientific result, when you find something new it opens up whole new sets of questions we can ask.”

In fact, Hughes said the astronomers did not expect the results they got. “I honestly didn’t think it was going to work – we had been trying so long with Class II sources and hadn’t found anything,” she said. “But I thought, we might as well try this last source that is just a little younger than most Class II sources. You want to try everything you can – but it was really a surprise when it worked.”

The paper, “Spatially resolved magnetic field structure in the disk of a T Tauri star,” was published Oct. 22. Nature is the world’s most highly-cited interdisciplinary science publication. The 145-year-old journal is published weekly.

Solar Storms a Wake-Up Call, Redfield Says

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This NASA image shows a solar storm in early 2012.

A July NASA report that a huge solar storm narrowly missed Earth in 2012 – avoiding catastrophic damage to energy, transportation and communications systems – has caused a media stir and some worry among Earthlings.

What’s more, other recent reports say that Earth is overdue for a devastating storm of the kind known as a “Carrington event” after an 1859 storm that disrupted telegraph signals and caused other damage in a still-nascent industrial world. Named for 19th-century English astronomer Richard Carrington, it was the largest of its kind on record. A similar event now, in a world dependent on digital communications and electrical energy, would cause widespread, long-lasting power outages and disrupt transportation and communications planet-wide. Eric Mack, a science blogger for Forbes, referred facetiously to a reversion to “Amish-style” civilization.

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, says the recent near-miss isn’t a cause for worldwide freakout, but should be a wake-up call; while a catastrophic solar storm may be several generations away, “it’s going to happen,” and scientists should be working on ways to better predict the event.

“I think it’s really important for us to understand what’s going on and have some good perspective on that because if we don’t prepare for it, we’re going to suffer the consequences,” he said. “We don’t need a Manhattan-style project and (to) devote 10 percent of our GDP to this one. But we do need to pay attention.”

Renovations Begin on Astronomy’s Van Vleck Refractor Telescope

The almost-century-old 20-inch Van Vleck Refractor, which lives on Foss Hill in its iconic dome, is undergoing a major renovation. Work began June 2.

The rare historic telescope will be dismantled, cleaned, repaired, reassembled and modernized over a period of about 15 months in preparation of the observatory centennial in 2016. The refractor has been deteriorating gradually since its retirement from research around 1993.

Antique Telescope Society members and Ray Museum Studios founders Fred Orthlieb, Ph.D. and Chris Ray are leading the renovation. Astronomy major Julian Dann ’17 and German Studies major Rebecca Hanschell ’16 are assisting with the project this summer.

Read more about the project in this News @ Wesleyan article.

Photos of the renovation, taken on June 5, are below. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

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Arulanantham Honored with Chambliss Medal at American Astronomical Society Meeting

Astronomy graduate student Nicole Arulanantham received the Chambliss Medal by the American Astronomical Society.

Astronomy graduate student Nicole Arulanantham received the Chambliss Medal by the American Astronomical Society.

Nicole Arulanantham, who is entering her second year as a graduate student in the Astronomy MA program, was awarded a Chambliss Medal by the American Astronomical Society at its June 3 meeting in Boston. The awards are given to recognize exemplary research by a student presenting a poster paper at an AAS meeting.

Arulanantham worked on the study with her advisor, Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, chair of the Astronomy Department, and Ann Marie Cody of the California Institute of Technology. It involved analysis of data obtained with the Spitzer Space Telescope. Read more about the study online here.

Astronomy major Ben Tweed ’13 also presented a paper at the AAS meeting and reported results of his study of the local interstellar medium using data from the Hubble Space Telescope. His advisor is Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, and the work was done in collaboration with astronomers at the Universities of Warwick and Kiel, as well as University College London. Read more about the study online here.

Antique Van Vleck Refractor Telescope to Get a Facelift

Wesleyan's 20-inch refractor telescope, located inside the Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill, will undergo renovations for the next 15 months. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Wesleyan’s 20-inch refractor telescope, located inside the Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill, will undergo renovations for the next 15 months. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Beginning June 2, the nearly century-old 20-inch Van Vleck Refractor, which lives on Foss Hill in its iconic dome, will get a complete facelift to return it to full working order. The rare historic telescope will be dismantled, cleaned, repaired, reassembled and modernized over a period of about 15 months in preparation of the observatory centennial in 2016. (View several photos of the renovation here.)

The work will be done by Fred Orthlieb, Ph.D. and Chris Ray, members of the Antique Telescope Society who run a company called Ray Museum Studios. Based in Swarthmore, Penn., they are well-regarded experts in the highly-specialized field of antique telescope restoration; Orthlieb is the Isaiah V. Williamson Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at Swarthmore College.

Kopac, Herbst, Martinez MA ’13 Attend Space Telescope Science Institute Symposium

Biology Ph.D candidate Sarah Kopac was invited to speak at the 2014 Spring Symposium of the Space Telescope Science Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, M.D. on April 29. Kopac spoke on “Specialization of Bacillus in the Geochemcially Challenged Environment of Death Valley.” Watch a video of her 20 minute presentation online here.

Kopac’s talk was part of a four-day interdisciplinary meeting titled “Habitable Worlds Across Time and Space” featuring speakers from around the world working in such diverse fields as biology, geology and astronomy. The focus of the seminar was on identifying places within our Solar System and Galaxy where we can most profitably search for life beyond the Earth.

Astronomy major Raquel Martinez, MA ’13 and William Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, director of graduate studies, also attended the conference.

Both Kopac and Martinez were active active participants in Wesleyan’s Planetary Science Group seminars and activities. Kopac’s advisor is Fred Cohan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies. Martinez’s advisor was Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy.

Biology Ph.D candidate Sarah Kopac speaks at the the Space Telescope Science Institute's Spring Symposium.

Biology Ph.D candidate Sarah Kopac speaks at the the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Spring Symposium.

Raquel Martiniz MA '13 poses with her research poster and conference organizer John Debes. Raquel is currently working in NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center and has been accepted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas where she will begin studies in the fall.

Raquel Martiniz MA ’13 poses with her research poster and conference organizer John Debes. Raquel is currently working in NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and has been accepted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas where she will begin studies in the fall.

Hughes Receives NSF Grant for Research on Planetary Systems

Meredith Hughes

Meredith Hughes

Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support her research on “Dust and Gas in Debris Disks Reveal the Origins of Planetary Systems.” The grant, awarded on April 21, is worth $532,943.

Hughes’ research focuses on understanding the formation and evolution of planetary systems.  She particularly studies the huge disks of gas and dust surrounding a young star, which can give insight into how and when a star planet might form. The disk is made up of  “junk” left over from the star’s formation.

The main technique Hughes uses to observe these circumstellar disks involves collecting radio waves. Invisible to the human eye, radio light allows astronomers to peer into dense dust clouds and trace the motions of small molecules.

Read more about Hughes’ research on planetary system formation in these past articles:

http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2014/03/06/hughesscience/
http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2013/05/26/hughes/