Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

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/

NASA Grant Supports Herbst’s Observations with Spitzer Space Telescope

Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, director of graduate studies, received a $5,000 grant from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to support observations with the Spitzer Space Telescope. The title of the proposal is “Planet Formation in the Circumbinary Disk of KH 15D.”

Herbst and his colleagues are measuring the brightness of the T Tauri binary system KH 15D covering several important missing orbital phases around minimum light and one near maximum. Data is crucial to understanding the mechanisms behind the observed reddening in the system, which has implications for planetformation and disk evolution.

Learn more about this study online here.

 

Hughes, Colleagues Investigate “Planetary Construction Site”

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.

A curious mix of dust and gas surrounding a distant star presents a unique mystery – and possibly a front-row seat to planet formation, according to Assistant Professor of Astronomy Meredith Hughes and colleagues, whose paper on the star appears in the March 6 edition of the journal Science.

The group of astronomers, including Hughes and 13 others, were the first to identify the asymmetry and “lumpy” quality of the gas surrounding beta Pictoris, using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. The discovery leads to two possible explanations: There may be a giant “exoplanet”  lurking nearby (forcing clumps of carbon dioxide to orbit the star on opposite sides) or there has recently been a collision between two Mars-sized bodies. More data must be analyzed to figure out which event happened.

“We actually already knew that there was gas around this star, but we didn’t know how much, or that the gas would be lumpy and asymmetric – the asymmetry is another indication that the gas was probably generated by a recent collision,” explained Hughes.

Beta Pictoris, which is actually a stellar neighbor of Earth, about 60 light years away, is in an active place for planet formation, Hughes said. And the evidence discussed in the Science paper points toward very recent (on astronomical timescales – in this case probably thousands of years) events.

Armandroff ’82 Announced as McDonald Observatory Director

Taft Armandroff ’82

Taft Armandroff ’82

Taft Armandroff ’82 has been appointed as director of the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. He’ll be moving to the Lone Star State in June 2014 to claim his new position.

Armandroff’s specialties include dwarf spheroidal galaxies, stellar populations in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, and globular clusters. He will soon be leaving his current position as director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Prior to Keck, he worked for 19 years at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Ariz., having earned his BA in astronomy with honors at Wesleyan and his Ph.D. from Yale.

“I’m tremendously excited to be joining the Texas astronomy program, and to develop the McDonald Observatory further with new instrumentation and research programs, and to continue the observatory’s stellar efforts to communicate astronomy discoveries to the public,” says Armandroff, in a press release. “There are very few places like UT Austin that can boast such a strong astronomy faculty, total access to a facility like the McDonald Observatory, and participation in a next generation telescope such as the Giant Magellan Telescope.”

Redfield Speaks about Magnetic Polarity Flipping on WNPR

Seth Redfield

Seth Redfield

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, spoke with Patrick Skahill and WNPR News on Nov. 15 about the sun flipping its magnetic polarity, which only happens every 11 years. While the change in polarity is not fully understood by scientists, the event is exciting “because this is kind of a probe into the internal workings of the sun, which is actually really hard for us to get a handle on,” according to Redfield.

This solar cycle, Cycle 24, has not been disruptive to satellites or the electric grid, which can react negatively to solar radiation. The sun’s northern hemisphere flipped earlier this summer and the southern hemisphere is poised to flip very soon.

Read the article online here.

Astronomy Students Speak at KNAC Research Symposium

Wesleyan astronomy students traveled to Vassar College Oct. 26-27 for the 24th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium sponsored by the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium.  KNAC is a group of eight colleges in New Jersey, New York and New England that have collaborated for decades to bring enhanced summer research opportunities to their students. Pictured are the 85 students and faculty who attended the conference.

Wesleyan astronomy students traveled to Vassar College Oct. 26-27 for the 24th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium sponsored by the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium. KNAC is a group of eight colleges in New Jersey, New York and New England that have collaborated for decades to bring enhanced summer research opportunities to their students. Pictured are the 85 students and faculty who attended the conference.

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day Features Redfield’s Interstellar Medium

"The Local Fluff" by Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy.

“The Local Fluff” by Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy.

On Sept. 24, NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day featured a figure that Assistant Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield generated as part of his research on the interstellar medium, the gas and dust surrounding the Sun and other nearby stars. Each day, NASA features a different image or photograph of the universe, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

The explanation of the figure states: “The stars are not alone. In the disk of our Milky Way Galaxy about 10 percent of visible matter is in the form of gas, called the interstellar medium (ISM). The ISM is not uniform, and shows patchiness even near our Sun. It can be quite difficult to detect the local ISM because it is so tenuous and emits so little light. This mostly hydrogen gas, however, absorbs some very specific colors that can be detected in the light of the nearest stars.

A working map of the local ISM within 20 light-years, based on ongoing observations and recent particle detections from the Earth-orbiting Interstellar Boundary Explorer satellite (IBEX), is shown above. These observations indicate that our Sun is moving through a Local Interstellar Cloud as this cloud flows outwards from the Scorpius-Centaurus Association star forming region.

Our Sun may exit the Local Cloud, also called the Local Fluff, during the next 10,000 years. Much remains unknown about the local ISM, including details of its distribution, its origin, and how it affects the Sun and the Earth. Unexpectedly, recent IBEX spacecraft measurements indicate that the direction from which neutral interstellar particles flow through our Solar System is changing.”

Redfield Receives NSF Grant for Exoplanet Atmosphere Research

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, won a three-year grant for $341,039 from the National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grants program to fund his research on “Accessing Atmospheric Properties of Terrestrial Exoplanets: Ground-Based Observations of Rayleigh Scattering and Extended Atmospheres.” The grant was awarded in August 2013.

Johnson ’15 Tends Wesleyan’s Long Lane Farm, Tutors Physics Students

Johnson is one of 10 student farmers working at Long Lane this summer. After graduating, Johnson hopes to study astrophysics and ultimately become an astronaut.

Coady Johnson ’15 harvests radishes at Long Lane Farm this summer. After graduating, Johnson hopes to study astrophysics and ultimately become an astronaut.

Q: Coady, what are you majoring in and why did you choose Wesleyan?

A: I’m double majoring in astronomy and physics. I had actually never been to Wesleyan before applying, but I had heard very good things from friends, and its reputation for being unconventional was very appealing to me. The clincher though was the very generous financial aid that the university offered me, without which I definitely would not be here.

Coady Johnson '15, who is double majoring in astronomy and physics, tends a booth at the North End Farmers' Market, where he sells produce from Wesleyan's Long Lane Organic Farm. Johnson is one of 10 student farmers working at Long Lane this summer. After graduating, Johnson hopes to study astrophysics and ultimately become an astronaut.

Coady Johnson ’15, who is double majoring in astronomy and physics, tends a booth at the North End Farmers’ Market, where he sells produce from Wesleyan’s Long Lane Organic Farm.

Q: Tell us about your efforts with the Long Lane Organic Farm. Why did you decide to become a student-farmer?

A: After coming to Wesleyan, I fell in with a group of people who really got me thinking about the state of food production and consumption in this country. Industrial farming and a disconnect between what we eat and how it is produced is hurting our well-being, and I think that the best way to remedy that is to educate myself and others on growing our own food in a more responsible and sustainable way.

Q: What is your role with the farm this summer? Please describe a day “down on the farm.”

A:  We don’t really have set roles, although I often choose to participate in or initiate various building projects, like planning and building our irrigation system. Our day begins at 7 a.m. with a morning meeting at the farm. There, all the people who are working that day discuss plans for work, like whether or not we should companion plant radishes with the squash. We try to be horizontally organized and make decisions only with 100 percent consensus, so that everyone can have a say in what we’re doing, and can suggest new ideas if they want. We work until 11, and then have a midday break, during which we eat lunch, run errands and do other work for the farm that can be done in the field, like emails and budget spreadsheets. At 3 p.m., we return to the farm and review what was accomplished in the morning, and then finish up whatever wasn’t quite done by lunch. At 7 we close up the shed and gates, and then return home for dinner. Nine of us live in the same house, and so whoever takes the afternoon off cooks dinner for the house.

Q: Who else is working on the farm this summer? Are you looking for new recruits?

A: Laura Cohen ’14, Kate Enright ’15, Ben Guilmette ’15, Josh Krugman ’14, Maggie Masselli ’16, Anna Redgrave ’16, Rebecca Sokol ’15, Hailey Sowden ’15 and Cat Walsh ’16 are all living in Middletown to work on the farm this summer. Whoever wants to help is a farmer, and we’re always looking for new people, from Wesleyan or from Middletown at large.

Q: Where are you from? Did you have any farming background or is this all new to you?

A: I’m from Wadsworth, Ill., which is about an hour north of Chicago and 15 minutes west of Lake Michigan. Most of the surrounding area is cornfields, but even so I didn’t get involved in farming until coming to Wesleyan.

Q: What does the farm do with the produce that you grow?

A: We give a lot of it to Bon Appetít, the campus dining service, so that they can serve it in the dining hall. Another large portion we take to the North End Farmers’ Market in Middletown. Anything we bring to the market and don’t sell is then donated to the Amazing Grace food pantry. We also have a new program this year with families in the area called the Middletown Food Project. We have the families over to the farm and teach the children about various aspects of farming and producing food, and also send everyone home with a bag of produce they harvest themselves. And we eat some of it ourselves, of course.

Q: What other extracurricular activities are you involved with at Wesleyan?

A: I tutor other students in General Physics II, and also have a job at the Star and Crescent, helping the head chef prep and serve the meals. This past spring I was in the Spring Dance performance, and I plan on auditioning for other dances in the future.

Q: As a rising junior, do you know what your post-Wesleyan plans might be?

A: After Wesleyan I hope to get my Ph.D. in astrophysics, though I haven’t given much thought about a particular institution to attend. After that I plan on applying to NASA in order to be an astronaut. I know it sounds farfetched, especially given the current state of NASA, but I believe strongly in the scientific and societal benefits of manned space exploration, and also have a great personal passion for science, space and discovery.