Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

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.

Solar Physicist Speaks at Sturm Memorial Lecture

Solar physicist Alan Title, director and senior fellow of the Advanced Technology Center at Lockheed Martin, spoke on "Making the Invisible Sun Visible" during the 2012 Sturm Memorial Lecture. Title described the instrumentation he has helped develop to make the invisible Sun visible and how this has revolutionized our understanding of the Sun.

Herbst, Kilgard Published in Astrophysical Journal

Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, chair of the Astronomy Department, is the author of “Infrared Variability of Evolved Protoplanetary Disks: Evidence for Scale Height Variations in the Inner Disk,” published in The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 748, Issue 1, article id. 71, 2012.
Roy Kilgard, research assistant professor of astronomy, is the author of “Chandra Observations of the Collisional Ring Galaxy NGC 922,” published in The Astrophysical Journal, Volume 747, Issue 2, article id. 150, 2012.

Redfield Participates in NASA’s IBEX Mission Press Conference

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, speaks at a press briefing about NASA's IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft, which sampled multiple heavy elements from within our solar system and beyond. IBEX found some astonishing data in the process.


Seth Redfield had to cut short his first Astronomy 224 class of the 2012 spring semester, but he had a good excuse: he was presenting at an international press conference being held by NASA on one of its recent missions.

Redfield, an assistant professor of astronomy, was chosen by NASA to be a non-mission expert to help verify results from the space agency’s ongoing IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) mission, an unmanned probe that analyzes the interstellar boundary that protects much of our solar system, including the Earth, from deadly cosmic rays from interstellar space.

One of Redfield’s primary areas of research deals with these types of clouds, more generally known as local interstellar medium (LISM), and his models had been used by NASA in the past,

Institute Supports Redfield’s Cool Star Winds Research

Seth Redfield

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, received a grant worth $65,932 from the Space Telescope Institute to support a project titled, “Cool Star Winds and the Evolution of Exoplanetary Atmospheres.” The grant expires in October 2014.

Redfield is observing stars that are host to their own planetary systems.  These “exoplanets” were only discovered in the last decade or so, and since their discovery, astronomers are very interested in learning more about the properties of these planets and their atmospheres.

“Invariably, the study of exoplanets is really an exercise in putting life on Earth into a cosmic context.  How common are planets?  Are these planets ‘habitable,’ which is just shorthand for, could liquid water exist on this planet? This project seeks to address the important relationship between a planet/atmosphere and its host star,” Redfield explains.

Scientists know that the host star plays a major role planets and their atmospheres, and the diversity of stars in our galaxy is quite extreme.  One way that stars influence their planets is through a stellar “wind,” which is composed of charged particles that escape the gravitational field of the Sun and travel out into interplanetary space. When solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, it creates aurora borealis.The solar wind might have been so strong when the Sun was young, that it could have effectively sand-blasted an entire planetary atmosphere away, particularly if that planet did not have a strong magnetic field,” Redfield says. This may have happened with Mars, which does not have a strong global magnetic field like Earth does.
This would explain why we see ancient evidence of surface water, which implies Mars had a substantial atmosphere at the time, but today, Mars is arid and has a very minimal atmosphere.
“The observations I plan to do will measure the interaction of stellar winds with the surrounding interstellar gas and dust.  This will give us a handle on the strength of the stellar wind, and enable us to explore the impact of these winds on the planets that are currently around these stars,” he says. “These stars are ‘cool’ not only because they are incredibly amazing to study, but because their surface temperatures are on the lower side compared to other stars we observe.”
The Sun is also a cool star.

Malamut’s Astronomy Research has been Out of this World

Craig Malamut ’12

In the summer of 2010 Craig Malamut traveled to the Easter Islands to study and photograph a rare solar eclipse. Soon after his eclipse observations were completed, NASA used one of his photographs in their official materials on the event. He also spent a week collaborating with astronomers from the University of Chile in Santiago to study Pluto’s atmosphere as it obscured the light from a faint star. This year, Malamut has coauthored two papers for astronomical journals and is analyzing data from the Hubble Space Telescope on gas and dust clouds lying near the sun and other nearby stars.

It’s the kind two-year research run that many scientists would be proud and excited to have accomplished. But Craig Malamut is not a paid researcher or a member of any faculty. He’s a college student who is still working through his senior year at Wesleyan.

Malamut, an astronomy major, has been working at an advanced level for someone who has yet to earn a bachelor’s degree. While the experience has been intense, he hasn’t been intimidated by the complexity of the work or felt limited by his undergraduate standing. “I’ve felt very prepared for this level of research from the courses, discussions, and advising I received from the astronomy department,” he says. “Professors Herbst, Moran, Redfield, and Kilgard do a great job getting their students involved early in astronomy research, whether at Wesleyan or abroad.”

He also took part in the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium Research Experience for Undergraduates (KNAC REU) Williams College. Several members of astronomy faculty also recommended him for the Keck-sponsored program in the Easter Islands.