Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

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.”

Grad Student Windemuth Honored for Astronomy Research

Diana Windemuth, a graduate student in the Astronomy Department, received Honorable Mention as a Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award Recipient at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society held Jan. 6-10 in Long Beach, Calif.

The award is given to recognize exemplary research by graduate students who present a poster at the meeting. Diana’s poster was titled “Dramatic Evolution of the Disk-Shaped Secondary in the Orion Trapezium Star θ1 Ori B1 (BM Ori): MOST Satellite Observations.”

Windemuth’s advisor is William Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy. Her work included results from two former Astronomy graduate students, Evan Tingle and Rachel Fueschl. Additional co-authors on the poster were Roy Kilgard, research assistant professor of astronomy, and Matthew Templeton and Arne Henden of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

Windemuth’s results are based on data obtained with a Canadian satellite known as MOST and a NASA satellite known as Chandra. The work was supported by a grant to Wesleyan from NASA’s Origins of Solar Systems program. Her work will soon be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Redfield’s Article Published by the Royal Astronomical Society

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, is the co-author of “Probing potassium in the atmosphere of HD 80606b with tunable filter transit spectrophotometry from the Gran Telescopio Canarias,” published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 419, pages 2233-50, 2012.

 

Astronomy’s Shettleworth Honored for Supporting KECK Consortium

Linda Shettleworth, administrative assistant in the Astronomy Department, started working for Wesleyan in 1980.

Linda Shettleworth, administrative assistant in the Astronomy Department, started working for Wesleyan in 1980.

For her exemplary service assisting an organization that improves astronomy research opportunities for undergraduates, Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) recently honored Linda Shettleworth with a certificate of achievement.

KNAC is an organization of eight colleges and universities in the northeast that have banded together to improve astronomy research opportunities for undergraduates. The members are: Colgate, Haverford, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Vassar, Wellesley, Wesleyan and Williams.

The group’s activities are supported by the National Science Foundation through a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant to Wesleyan. Since 2004, Shettleworth has administered the grant and assisted with the administration of a previous grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation that initiated the consortium.

“Her cheerful competence and unwavering loyalty to the best interests of all of us has been much appreciated by the faculty with whom she deals on a regular basis,” says Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, chair of the Astronomy Department and director of Graduate Studies. “The Astronomy Department is lucky to have her and proud of her service and accomplishments.”

Shettleworth came to Wesleyan 32 years ago

Astronomy Students Present Research at KNAC Meeting

Seven Wesleyan undergraduates spoke during the annual Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium meeting held at Middlebury College on Sept. 22. They presented the results from their summer research projects.

Seven Wesleyan undergraduates spoke during the annual Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium meeting. They presented the results from their summer research projects.

Seven Wesleyan undergraduates presented research at the annual Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium meeting held at Middlebury College on Sept. 22.

Astronomy major Mark Popinchalk '13 presents his research.

Astronomy major Mark Popinchalk ’13 presents his research.

Pictured above, from left, are: Eric Edelman ’13, astronomy major, who worked with Professor Jay Pasachoff at Williams College; Miche Aaron ’14, earth and environmental studies major, who worked with Associate Professor Martha Gilmore of Wesleyan;  Mark Popinchalk ’13, astronomy major, who worked with Professor Debra Elmegreen of Vassar College; James Dottin ’13, earth and environmental studies major, who worked with Research Associate Professor James Greenwood of Wesleyan; Ben Tweed ’13, astronomy major, who worked with Assistant Professor Seth Redfield of Wesleyan; Kerry Klemmer ’13, astronomy major,  who worked with Professor Kim McLeod of Wellesley College; Lily Zucker ’14, astronomy major, who worked with Professor Tom Balonek of Colgate.

In addition to presenting research talks, the students also wrote research papers that have been published in the 2012 Proceedings of the Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium. KNAC is sponsored by a National Science Foundation/Research Experiences for Undergraduates grant at Wesleyan.

 

Wyman MA ’11 Receives American Astronomical Society Award

Katherine Wyman MA ’11

Katherine Wyman MA ’11

Katherine Wyman MA ’11 was one of only six graduate students nationwide to receive a Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award medal for her poster at the recent 220th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The awards recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students who present at one of the poster sessions at the meetings of the AAS.

Wyman’s poster was on the work she did for her master’s thesis with her advisor, Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy. It involved characterizing the gas and dust that the Sun may have passed through over the last tens of millions of years and then constructing a plausible record of the size of the heliosphere over this time scale. The extent of the heliosphere could have consequences for many earthly processes such as atmospheric chemistry, cloud cover, and mutation rates for surface organisms. Redfield notes that he and Wyman are about to submit a paper on this and are planning to write a second one.

The judging process includes not only a critique of the poster, but one-on-one question sessions with reviewers.

Currently, Wyman is employed at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Science Departments Host Lab Tours for Local Students

Fifth grade students from Snow Elementary School in Middletown toured Wesleyan science departments on June 15. Pictured, a Snow School student observes sunspots and solar flares through a telescope at Wesleyan's Astronomy Department.

Astronomy graduate student Raquel Martinez explains how the telescope uses a hydrogen alpha filter, which allows light of exactly one wavelength to pass through, not harming the eye.

Redfield, Herbst Discuss Transit of Venus on Fox 61

Bill Herbst discusses the Venus transit on Fox 61 news.

On a feature for Fox 61, Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, and Bill Herbst, chair and the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, discussed the transit of Venus across the Sun, and showed viewers how Wesleyan would be marking the event with public viewings from Van Vleck Observatory.

“So here we have a case, where we can see the affect of a planet on a star, close up,” Herbst said in the feature, which aired on June 5.

The next transit won’t happen intil 2017.

“It’s a very wonderful opportunity to learn something new about planets and their atmospheres and solar systems in general,” Redfield said.

“Evaporating” Planet May Hold Clues to Gas Giants, Other Exoplanets

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy and Adam Jensen, visiting assistant professor of astronomy, documented an exoplanet that is slowly evaporating “hot hydrogen.”

In a nearby solar system, a planet the size of Jupiter orbiting a star similar to our own sun is doing something that has astrophysicists very intrigued: It’s dissolving–albeit very, very slowly.

The findings are detailed in a study by primary investigators Adam Jensen, visiting assistant professor of astronomy, and Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy. They made the majority of their observations using the 9.2 meter telescope at The University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory. The paper, “A Detection of Ha In An Exoplanetary Exosphere,” will appear in the June 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Jensen and Redfield studied the planet, HD 189733b which is about the size of Jupiter, orbiting a star 63 light years from Earth.

The planet in question, a gas giant similar in size to Jupiter called HD 189733b, orbits a class K star, which is about 63 light years from Earth–a virtual next-door neighbor in astronomical terms.

What Jensen and Redfield observed was HD 189733b discharging significant amount of atomic hydrogen into space.

“This type of evaporation of atomic hydrogen, or what is called ‘hot hydrogen,’ is something that has never been observed before,” says Redfield. “When we first saw the evidence we thought, ‘Wow, can that be right?’ But more careful analysis and cross-checks confirmed it. At that point we got really excited because we knew we’d found an important phenomenon.”

The orbital path of HD 189733b is 12 times closer to its star (HD 189733) than Mercury is to our own sun (a class G star, and 32 times closer than the Earth is to the sun. While somewhat smaller than the sun, the star HD 189733 is more volatile–often discharging massive solar flares hundreds of miles into space–and dangerously close to HD 189733b.

The astronomers’ observations indicate an interaction between the stellar activity and the planet’s atmosphere. This can have implications for understanding other planetary systems, especially those which may have potentially habitable planets.

That is not the case with HD 189733b, a gas giant orbiting very close to a somewhat volatile star. But is it that very degree of proximity that is causing the planet to slowly evaporate?

“This mass loss is almost certainly due to the proximity of the planet HD 189733b relative to its central star, HD 189733, along with the star’s radiation,” says Jensen. “This isn’t to imply it’s not going to last much longer. It is a very slow evaporation, and ultimately the planet will lose only 1 percent of its mass. Still, that is significant.”

What Jensen, Redfield and other observers contributing to the paper saw to indicate this was a significant spike in spectrographic readings suggesting the planet was shedding significant amounts of hydrogen. They were also able to detect it using visible light–another first. Past detections of hydrogen dissipation, which have been rare, used ultraviolet light.

“We’ve only been able to observe exoplanets for about 20 years, and we’ve detected atmospheres in just a few dozen of those, so this is an exciting finding,” Redfield says. “We’re hoping to do more observations of this planet and others that are similar in their composition and positioning to their stars. This will help us determine how rare of a phenomenon this is.”

The astronomers hope to do further studies at the McDonald Observatory, and perhaps try to book time on the Hubble Telescope, which would afford them the clearest view of HD 189733b.

The astronomers were supported in this study by a grant from the National Science Foundation.