Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

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.

 

Study by Redfield, Wyman MA ’11 Published in Astrophysical Journal, Forbes

Seth Redfield

Seth Redfield

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, and Katy Wyman MA ’11, recently co-authored a paper that will appear in the Aug. 10 Astrophysical Journal, detailing several hundred spectral line measurements out to bright stars within 326 light years of our sun. Wyman is now employed at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The study also appeared in the July 28 edition of Forbes in an article titled “Looking In The Sun’s Rear-View Mirror: A New Map Of The Local Interstellar Medium.”

The first comprehensive map of the local interstellar medium — the gas drifting between the nearest stars — “will not only help theorists better understand the dynamics of our tiny swath of the galaxy, but represents the first crucial step in paving the way for interstellar travel,” the article reports.

Redfield, Wyman and their colleagues made their primary observations through the Hubble Space Telescope, the McDonald Observatory in Texas and the Australian Astronomical Observatory in New South Wales. Redfield says the plan is to publish a revised morphological model in the next six months.

Read the Forbes article online here.

Local Elementary School Students Tour Wesleyan’s Science Departments

Wesleyan hosted a science tour for Snow Elementary School students on June 19. Faculty, staff and graduate students taught the fifth graders about astronomy, biology, scientific imaging, physics and chemistry through several hands-on activities. The students also visited the Joe Webb Peoples Museum in Exley Science Center. Photos of their science tour are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)

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Students Construct Radio Telescope for Astronomy Department

Astronomy students and faculty celebrated the new small radio telescope (SRT) on May 1 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The SRT has a motorized arm that can position the dish to face any part of the sky.  Quasars, pulsars, and the afterglow of the Big Bang have all been discoveries of radio astronomy.

Astronomy students and faculty celebrated the new small radio telescope (SRT) on May 1 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The SRT has a motorized arm that can position the dish to face any part of the sky. Quasars, pulsars, and the afterglow of the Big Bang have all been discoveries of radio astronomy.

(Story contributed by Jim Smith)

When graduate student Amy Steele settled into her seat the first day of an upper-level Radio Astronomy course last January she was anticipating a rigorous four-month exploration of the discipline. The instructor, Meredith Hughes, who had just joined the Astronomy Department as an assistant professor, came with strong credentials in radio astronomy.

Steele was excited. After completing her undergraduate work at Williams College, she had taken four years off to work as the astronomy lab supervisor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Last fall she enrolled as a graduate student at Wesleyan.

Classmates, with the help of Astronomy Department faculty, used the new device to detect the sun.

Classmates, with the help of Astronomy Department faculty, used the new device to detect the sun.

“Radio astronomy is super powerful,” she said, “and it’s a very rewarding area to work in. It offers the potential for many discoveries in years to come.”

What neither Steele nor any of her fellow students was expecting was the opportunity to actually construct a radio telescope. But that was the task Hughes laid out for them after she had reviewed the course syllabus. Following design specifications for a small radio telescope (SRT) developed by Alan Rogers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, the students would not only create a functional radio telescope, they would do so by the end of the semester.

The project was made all the more challenging by the fact that there was no kit for the device. “Haystack used to sell SRT kits,” Hughes explained. “Dozens of them were built and many are still in use. But as electronics improved, the original kits became obsolete. Just last summer Alan Rogers retooled the telescope design and they decided to stop producing kits and just publish the plans.

“Working from plans enhances the value of the learning experience,” she adds. “While many of the components are commercially produced, some parts have to be fabricated or assembled.  For example, the main light-gathering component is a piece of copper tape wrapped around a foam rod, bolted inside a metal cake pan. It’s both challenging and fun for students.”

Hughes divided her class into three teams, each of which was responsible for a different part of the telescope. Each team would work separately, acquiring and assembling the components for its part of the telescope, but they would also interact.

Hughes Studies Formation, Evolution of Planetary Systems

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.

(Contributed by Jim Smith)

Meredith Hughes was one of those kids drawn to science and nature. But growing up in small-town Rhode Island, she didn’t know any scientists.

“The people I knew who liked science were teachers and doctors,” recalled Hughes, a new assistant professor of astronomy at Wesleyan this year. “So I figured that’s probably what I’d be.”

Then, during her junior year of high school, a patient of her mother, a women’s health nurse practitioner, recommended a program for budding scientists called The Summer Science Program (SSP). Hughes applied, and became one of 25 students from around the world to spend the summer under the pristine skies of Ojai, California. “We spent the summer determining the orbit of 4 Vesta, the second largest object in the Asteroid Belt,” she said. “It was my first exposure to professional scientists and real research, and by the time the summer was over I had begun to think that maybe a career in science wasn’t such a crazy idea.”

Little more than a year later, she was enrolled at Yale. Despite the inroads into astrophysics she had made at SSP, she embraced the philosophy of a liberal arts education and spent her freshman year avoiding astronomy and instead exploring fields as diverse as cognitive science and music theory. During the summer  she had an opportunity to stay in New Haven and do astronomical research with Professor Meg Urry, director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Hughes found it exhilarating to apply the physics she had learned in the classroom to investigating the properties of the supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies.

“After that summer, I was hooked,” she said. She went on to complete A.M.  and Ph.D. degrees in astronomy at Harvard in 2007 and 2010, earning the department’s Fireman Fellowship for an outstanding Ph.D. thesis in the field of experimental astrophysics.

After Harvard, she accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with the Miller Institute at the University of California-Berkeley. Former Miller Fellows have included Nobel laureates and Fields medalists, but Hughes says she was most excited to follow in the footsteps of former Miller Fellow Carl Sagan. “His career was exemplary in combining a deep understanding of research with an incredible gift at communicating his knowledge and passion to non-scientists, which is a combination I strive to emulate,” Hughes said. She was at Berkeley when she learned about the opening at Wesleyan that offered what she said was “exactly the balance of teaching and research I was looking for.”

New Radio Telescope to Benefit Astronomy Research

A new telescope at Van Vleck Observatory saw its first light on May 1. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by staff and students of the Astronomy Department and the Science Machine Shop.

Astronomy students and faculty celebrated the completion of a new small radio telescope (SRT) on May 1 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. This is Wesleyan’s first radio telescope, joining three optical telescopes housed at the Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

Radio telescopes are highly complementary to optical telescopes. Able to see through cloud cover, they are not limited by weather. Also, in a "radio sky," the remnants of exploding stars and distant supermassive black holes shine brightly.

Radio telescopes are highly complementary to optical telescopes. Able to see through cloud cover, they are not limited by weather. Also, in a “radio sky,” the remnants of exploding stars and distant supermassive black holes shine brightly.

Going forward it will allow Wesleyan students to detect more remote radio sources, map galactic rotation and conduct other kinds of astronomical research. It will be an essential tool in the university’s astronomy courses.

This fall, the SRT will allow Wesleyan students and faculty to detect remote radio sources, map galactic rotation and conduct other kinds of astronomical research. It will be an essential tool in the university’s astronomy courses.

Astronomy students and faculty celebrated the new small radio telescope (SRT) on May 1 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The SRT has a motorized arm that can position the dish to face any part of the sky. Quasars, pulsars, and the afterglow of the Big Bang have all been discoveries of radio astronomy.

The SRT has a motorized arm that can position the dish to face any part of the sky. Quasars, pulsars, and the afterglow of the Big Bang have all been discoveries of radio astronomy.

Students enrolled in Assistant Professor Meredith Hughes' Radio Astronomy Class created the functional radio telescope in one semester. They followed design specifications for a small radio telescope developed by Alan Rogers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory.

Students enrolled in Assistant Professor Meredith Hughes’ Radio Astronomy Class created the functional radio telescope in one semester. They followed design specifications for a small radio telescope developed by Alan Rogers at MIT’s Haystack Observatory. Wesleyan is the first university to assemble a SRT from upgraded system plans published by Haystack.

Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, divided her class into three teams, each of which was responsible for a different part of the telescope. Each team would work separately, acquiring and assembling the components for its part of the telescope.

Hughes, pictured directing the satellite through a computer, divided her class into three teams. Each team was responsible for acquiring and assembling the components for different sections of the telescope.

Of the 10 astronomers who have received Nobel prizes in astronomy, six used radio telescopes in their research.

Of the 10 astronomers who have received Nobel prizes in astronomy, six used radio telescopes in their research.

Classmates, with the help of Astronomy Department faculty, used the new device to detect the sun.

Classmates, with the help of Astronomy Department faculty, used the new device to detect the sun during a “First Light” celebration.

Redfield Invited Speaker at Extrasolar Planets Conference in Germany

Seth Redfield

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, spoke on “Properties of the Interstellar Medium Surrounding the Sun and Nearby Stars” during a conference held March 11-15 in the Physikzentrum in Bad Honnef, Germany.

The conference, which was 527th in a series, was sponsored by the Wilhelm und Else Heraeus Stiftung, a German foundation that supports scientific research and education. The topic of the conference was “Plasma and Radiation Environment in Astrospheres and Implications for the Habitability of Extrasolar Planets.”