Tag Archive for Astronomy

Kilgard Explains Why Scientists Are So Excited About Observing Merging Neutron Stars

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

Writing in The Conversation, Roy Kilgard, research associate professor of astronomy, explains the significance of an exciting new discovery in astronomy. For the first time, astrophysicists have observed merging neutron stars using LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the Virgo interferometer.

Kilgard writes:

This news may confirm a longstanding theory: that some gamma-ray bursts (GRBs for short), which are among the most energetic, luminous events in the universe, are the result of merging neutron stars. And it is in the crucible of these mergers that most heavy elements may be forged. Researchers can’t produce anything like the temperatures or pressures of neutron stars in a laboratory, so observation of these exotic objects provides a way to test what happens to matter at such extremes.

Astronomers are excited because for the first time they have gravitational waves and light signals stemming from the same event. These truly independent measurements are separate avenues that together add to the physical understanding of the neutron star merger.

Niraula MA ’18, Redfield Lead Team in Discovery of 3 Super-Earths

A team of scientists from Wesleyan, led by Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield and graduate student Prajwal Niraula MA’18, discovered three super-Earths transiting around a nearby star, just 98 light-years from Earth. This NASA-generated image was created to depict 55 Cancri e, a super-Earth 40 light-years away from Earth.

A team of scientists from Wesleyan discovered three super-Earths transiting around a nearby star, 98 light-years away. The NASA-generated image above depicts a different super-Earth: 55 Cancri e, discovered in 2004.

A team of scientists from Wesleyan, led by Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield and graduate student Prajwal Niraula MA ’18, has co-authored a paper on the discovery of three planets, or super-Earths, transiting around a nearby star, just 98 light-years away.

“Super-Earths are slightly larger than Earth, and the three of them straddle the divide between the rocky planets like Earth and ice giants like Neptune,” explains Redfield.

These planets were found using the Kepler Space Telescope. “Kepler has found thousands of exoplanets these last eight years, but this is the closest planetary system that Kepler has ever found, although closer planetary systems have been found using different telescopes,” says Redfield.

Observational Cosmologist Delivers Sturm Lecture

On April 3, Daniel Eisenstein, a observational cosmologist and a professor at Harvard University, spoke on "Mapping the Universe with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey" during the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture. In memory of Kenneth E. Sturm from the Class of 1940, this annual event is open the entire Wesleyan community and features a presentation from an astronomer that is outstanding in his/her field and is able to communicate the excitement of science to a lay audience.

On April 3, Daniel Eisenstein, a observational cosmologist and a professor at Harvard University, spoke on “Mapping the Universe with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey” during the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture. In memory of Kenneth E. Sturm from the Class of 1940, this annual event is open the entire Wesleyan community and features a presentation from an astronomer that is outstanding in his/her field and is able to communicate the excitement of science to a lay audience.

Faculty, Students, Alumni Attend the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Avi Stein ‘17.

A group of Wesleyan faculty, students and alumni attended the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodland, Texas March 20-24. The annual conference unites 2,000 international specialists in petrology, geochemistry, geophysics, geology and astronomy to present their latest research in planetary science over the course of several days.

Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the George I. Seney Professor of Geology Martha Gilmore coordinated Wesleyan’s group. While at the event, she presented her work on the oldest rocks on Venus and Mars gully analogues on Earth.

McKeeby MA ’17 and Tarnas ’16 (Photo by Martha Gilmore)

McKeeby MA ’17 and Tarnas ’16.

A number of her current graduate and undergraduate students attended and several also presented their work. Ben McKeeby MA ’17 discussed his work on Mars-analogue volcanic sites on Earth; Shaun Mahmood MA ’17 discussed his work on lunar water; and Avi Stein ’17 discussed his work on Venus sediments. All three of these students were supported by the NASA Connecticut Space Grant. Earth and Environmental Sciences graduate student Jordyn-Marie Dudley MA ’18 also attended the conference.

Professor Martha Gilmore and Golder MA ’13 (Photo by Martha Gilmore)

Professor Martha Gilmore and Golder MA ’13.

Numerous alumni made contributions at the conference including astronomy majors Bob Nelson MA ’69 and Jesse Tarnas ’16; earth and environmental sciences majors Tanya Harrison MA ’08, Nina Lanza MA ’06, Keenan Golder MA ’13 and James Dottin ’13.

Earth and environmental sciences and chemistry double major Peter Martin ’14 and physics major Ian Garrick-Bethell ’02 also contributed.

Research by Redfield, Zachary ’17 Using Hubble, Voyager Probes Widely Reported

Astronomy student Julia Zachary '17 presented research at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society's 229th annual meeting on Jan. 6. (Photo by © CorporateEventImages/Todd Buchanan 2017)

Astronomy student Julia Zachary ’17 presented research at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society’s 229th annual meeting on Jan. 6. (Photo by © CorporateEventImages/Todd Buchanan)

Wesleyan Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield and astronomy student Julia Zachary ’17 recently reported at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society on their research using data from the Hubble Space Telescope combined with two Voyager spacecraft probes, both very long-lived and successful NASA missions. The findings were shared in dozens of news outlets from the U.S. to India to Afghanistan.

According to Nature.com, “The work is a rare marriage of two of the most famous space missions — and an unprecedented glimpse at the realm between the stars.”

“If the Voyager spacecraft and the Google Street View car are going around your neighborhood taking pictures on the street, then Hubble is providing the overview, the road map for the Voyagers on their trip through interstellar space,” Zachary said at a press conference held Jan. 6.

Astronomers have used instruments such as Hubble to obtain indirect measurements of the material in interstellar space. But the Voyager probes are giving them a direct taste of this mysterious environment, sending back data on the electron density of their surroundings. “As an astronomer, I’m not used to having measurements from the place I’m observing,” Redfield said.

SpaceDaily.com reports: “A preliminary analysis of the Hubble observations reveals a rich, complex interstellar ecology, containing multiple clouds of hydrogen laced with other elements. Hubble data, combined with the Voyagers, have also provided new insights into how our sun travels through interstellar space.”

“This is a great opportunity to compare data from in situ measurements of the space environment by the Voyager spacecraft and telescopic measurements by Hubble,” said study leader Seth Redfield of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

“The Voyagers are sampling tiny regions as they plow through space at roughly 38,000 miles per hour. But we have no idea if these small areas are typical or rare. The Hubble observations give us a broader view because the telescope is looking along a longer and wider path. So Hubble gives context to what each Voyager is passing through.”

Read more at Astronomy.comThe Indian ExpressEarthSky.org and International Business Times. See photos of Zachary at the press conference on the American Astronomical Society’s website. A press release can be found on HubbleSite.

Redfield also is associate professor of integrative sciences.

Four Students Awarded NASA Connecticut Space Grants

Grant recipient Rami Hamati '19, left, at a workshop sponsored last summer by the CT Space Grant on helicopters and other small aircraft.

Grant recipient Rami Hamati ’19, left, is pictured at a workshop sponsored last summer by the Connecticut Space Grant on helicopters and other small aircraft.

Four Wesleyan undergraduate students have received grants from NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

Astronomy major Hannah Fritze ’18 was awarded $5,000 for an Undergraduate Research Fellowship Grant titled, “Searching for Intermediate Mass Black Holes in Ultraluminous X-ray Binaries.” This grant will support her research this coming semester on black holes with Roy Kilgard, support astronomer and research associate professor of astronomy.

Avi Stein ’17, who is majoring in astronomy, was awarded $1,000 for a Student Travel Grant. He will be presenting his research on Venus—conducted with Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences—at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in March.

Rami Hamati ’19 and David Machado ’18 each received a $5,000 undergraduate scholarship. According to Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, these scholarships are awarded to students who show promise as a major in a STEM field related to NASA’s mission.

Read about past recipients of Connecticut Space Grants here and here.

Wesleyan Observatory Opening for 100th Anniversary Events

cam_vvo_2013-0102225113The Hartford Courant featured the 100th anniversary of Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory, which will be celebrated with an exhibit and a series of events this month and next. The “Under Connecticut Skies” exhibit, located in the observatory library, will open May 6 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and will remain open indefinitely during the observatory’s public hours.

Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, who has been working on the exhibit since last year, said the Van Vleck Observatory and the astronomy department building are part of the exhibit, telling the story of how astronomers did their work 100 years ago.

“One of the things most interesting to me as a historian of science is that this building itself is our most important artifact we’re interpreting in this exhibit,” she said. “The way it’s organized really reflects the way astronomy happened in the early part of the 20th century. There was a period when astronomical data was not series of numbers or something electronic. The raw data was pieces of glass, negative images of the sky, and we have 40,000 in the basement.”

Williams and students have been gathering oral history accounts and making videos to document the historical significance of the artifacts and research.

“Astronomy is historical in and of itself,” Williams said. “It deals with issues of time. When you look into a telescope you’re looking back in time, and that makes the act of observing a historical act as well as a scientific one.”

Learn more about the exhibit, the 100th anniversary re-dedication on June 16, and other planned events here.

 

Van Vleck Observatory Celebrates Centennial with Exhibition, Event Series

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. Photo by John Van Vlack.

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory is celebrating its centennial this spring, with a series of events and an exhibition beginning in early May.

On May 6, the observatory’s library will reopen to the public with an exhibition on the history of astronomy at Van Vleck. Developed by a team of faculty, students, and staff, the exhibition will use the observatory’s extensive collection of scientific instruments, teaching materials, photographs, drawings, and correspondence to illustrate both the changes in astronomical research and teaching over the past century, and the observatory’s consistent mission of conducting instruction and research under the same roof. The exhibition will incorporate the history of science into Van Vleck’s existing public outreach programs through period lectures, demonstrations of historic artifacts, and gallery talks.

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th-century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The exhibition was spearheaded by Roy Kilgard, support astronomer and research associate professor of astronomy, Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, and Paul Erickson, associate professor of history, associate professor of environmental studies, associate professor of science in society.

More events are planned in the run-up to the exhibition opening. On May 1, the Wesleyan Orchestra will hold a concert featuring astronomically themed music, including John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which was composed using star charts from the Van Vleck Observatory library. On May 3, Special Collections & Archives will host an exhibition, “A Stellar Education: Astronomy at Wesleyan, 1831-1916.” Located on the first floor of Olin Library, the exhibition documents the study of astronomy at Wesleyan from the university’s opening through the construction of the Van Vleck Observatory. On May 4, the History Department is hosting David DeVorkin, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who will give a talk situating Van Vleck in the history of American observatories.

Astronomy Students Present Research at KNAC Symposium

The 26th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) was held at Williams College on Oct. 17.

Five students presented results of their summer research: Julian Dann ’17, Aylin Garcia Soto ’18, and Girish Duvvuri ’17 delivered oral presentations while Rachel Aronow ’17 and Avi Stein ’17 presented a poster. Several other students came along to enjoy the weekend, which featured a dinner and social event on Friday night, the seminar on Saturday and breakout sessions on such topics as Inclusive Astronomy and how/why to program in Python.

More than 100 students and faculty from KNAC attended the event (pictured below):

keck20156

keck20151

Women in Science Hosts Stargazing, Hot Chocolate Night

Wesleyan’s Women in Science (WIS) gathered at the Van Vleck Observatory on Oct. 8 for “Starry Night,” an evening of stargazing, conversation and hot chocolate. Participants used the Astronomy Department’s 16-inch Fiducia telescope to view the night sky. (Photos by Ryan Heffernan ’16)

Students gather at the Van Vleck Observatory on October 8, 2015 for stargazing and hot chocolate sponsored by the Astronomy department.

Students gather at the Van Vleck Observatory on October 8, 2015 for stargazing and hot chocolate sponsored by the Astronomy department.

Wesleyan’s Astronomical History featured in Astronomy Magazine

astronomymag

Astronomy magazine has an in-depth feature in its October issue on Wesleyan’s astronomical history and the restoration of its century-old, 20-inch refractor telescope, just in time for the Van Vleck Observatory’s centennial observation this spring.

Telescopes like Wesleyan’s 28-foot-long, two-ton refractor had once been cutting edge, and a source of pride for dozens of American universities. But as they “staggered into obsolescence” over the past half century, institutions have had to make tough choices about whether to renovate or retire them. In 2014, Wesleyan hired Chris Ray and Fred Orthlieb of Pennsylvania to give its refractor a second life.

The story traces the history of giant refractors through the 18th and 19th centuries, and Wesleyan’s acquisition of its own telescopes, and how they were used.

astronomymag2“Astronomical research and the teaching of students would go hand in hand at Wesleyan, [astronomer Frederick] Slocum told his audience (at the observatory’s dedication). But in an age of giant telescopes, even a 20-inch refractor was only modest. Worse still, New England’s weather is notoriously dreadful for astronomers. To make an impact, the Van Vleck Observatory would have to focus on a single fundamental question. By collaborating with Yerkes, England’s Royal Greenwich Observatory, and a consortium of other schools, Wesleyan researchers would measure parallaxes–a way to gauge how far away stars are through the tiny displacements in their positions caused by Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun. The astronomers would find the distances to the stars, Slocum said–and that’s exactly what they did.”

Wesleyan’s refractor was used to work on this problem from the 1920s through the 1990s, and it trained generations of young astronomers during that time. “In the 1950s, popularizer Walter Scott Houston peered through it to write his ‘Deep Sky Wonders’ column for Sky & Telescope.

Read the full story, which features a six-page spread of photos taken by Wesleyan photographers Olivia Drake MALS ’08 and Laurie Kenney, here.

Wesleyan Astronomers Detect Shock Waves from Exoplanet

Astronomers at Wesleyan have detected shock waves produced by a high-speed “hot Jupiter” exoplanet caught in a tight orbit around its host star, io9 reported. The story explains:

It’s a potential indication of an incredibly powerful magnetic field around the planet.
Also known as “roaster planets,” hot Jupiters are so named because they have many characteristics in common with the largest gas giant in our solar system, most notably mass. But they have much hotter surface temperatures because they orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Researcher in Astronomy Wilson Cauley has published a new study on the topic in the Astrophysical Journal. io9 quotes Cauley’s website:

If the planet is moving supersonically through the stellar wind or coronal plasma, a bow shock will form between the planet and the star at an angle that is determined by the relative velocity of the planet and the plasma. If the planet has a magnetosphere, the bow shock will form where the pressure between the plasma and the magnetosphere balance. For planets with strong magnetic fields, the bow shock can form many planetary radii ahead of the planet in it’s orbit. If the compression of the stellar wind material in the bow shock is high enough, the line-of-sight column density of material in the bow shock between us and the star can be high enough to produce a visible absorption signature in the stellar spectrum. This absorption signature occurs before the planet normally transits the star.