Tag Archive for Astronomy Department

Faculty, Students Win Research Support from NASA’s CT Space Grant Consortium

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

Two faculty members and three students have been awarded grants in the latest call for proposals from NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

Jim Greenwood, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, professor of integrative sciences, were awarded $8,000 for a Faculty Collaboration Grant titled “Chondrule Formation Experiments.” This is to run high-temperature experiments on material that makes up meteorites in order to test a hypothesis that they put forward in a recent paper in Icarus this year.

Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, was awarded $1,500 for a STEM Education Programming Grant

Herbst, Greenwood Co-Author Article on Chondrules

Bill Herbst

Bill Herbst

Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, and James Greenwood, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, co-authored an article published in the planetary science journal Icarus. Their article, “A New Mechanism for Chondrule Formation: Radiative Heating by Hot Planetesimals” grew out of research seminars from the recently introduced Planetary Science graduate concentration and minor at Wesleyan.

Their work focused on chondrules, or tiny spheres of molten rock that permeate primitive meteorites and date to very close to the beginning of the solar system.

For decades, the existence of chondrules has puzzled astrophysicists and cosmochemists as no obvious heat source exists at the time and location of their formation. Herbst and Greenwood set out to find this elusive heat source by combining their expertise in astronomy and earth science, respectively.

Jim Greenwood

James Greenwood

“It could be that the heat source is hot lava — oceans of magma– that may appear on nascent planets in their earliest days. The heat source is radioactive decay of a short-lived isotope of Aluminum, incubated in planetesimals with the size of small asteroids and brought to the surface as molten rock,” Herbst said.

Most of the material available for planet formation ends up on a planet very early on. A few “lucky bits,” represented by the primitive meteorites, avoided collision with a planet until just recently.

“It is, perhaps, not surprising that many, if not all of them, had a close encounter with a hot planetesimal that produced the chondrules and, likely, the chondritic meteorite in which they are embedded,” he said.

Flaherty to Speak on New Planetary Systems during AAAS Annual Meeting

Kevin Flaherty, a postdoctoral researcher working with Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, will speak on “Dusty Debris as a Window into New Planetary Systems” during the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) 2016 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., Feb. 13. Flaherty is one of three symposium speakers who will discuss the theme “Planet Formation Seen with Radio Eyes.”

Scientists are now probing how, where, and when planets form and are analyzing the links between planetary system architecture and the properties of the parent circumstellar disk. Though the relationship of planetary to stellar masses remains obscure, it is clear that most stars host planets. This symposium describes the state-of-the-art radio-wavelength observing campaigns astronomers are using to probe planet formation and samples new scientific results that radio telescopes are yielding.

After planetary systems form, small bodies analogous to Kuiper Belt Objects collide and produce dusty debris that can be seen around distant stars with radio interferometers. The structure of such debris disks is intimately connected with the dynamics of young planetary systems. In his presentation, Flaherty will describe how recent spectacular Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array observations of debris disks are revealing the properties of emerging planetary systems and the processes by which they form and evolve.

Several Wesleyan Projects Awarded NASA’s CT Space Grants


Jesse Tarnas ’16 (left) one of this year’s award winners, accompanied Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield (second from right) on an observing run at the Kitt Peak National Observatory to do research on exoplanet atmospheres. Also pictured are Estella Barbosa Souza, now a graduate student in physics at Yale University, and Adam Jensen, previously a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan.

Four Wesleyan undergraduates and a faculty member received awards in the latest call for proposals from NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

Astronomy major Rachel Aronow ’17 was awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the amount of $5,000 for her project, “Planet Formation and Stellar Characteristics in Tatooine-like Systems.” She is working with Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, studying Tatooine-like systems (named after the fabled home system of Luke Skywalker), which are planet-forming disks that surround a close pair of stars that are in orbit around each other. Aronow conducted research with Herbst last summer, and these funds will support further work this academic year and possibly next summer.

Two students each received Student Travel Grants of $1,000. Melissa Lowe ’17, an earth and environmental sciences major, is working with James Greenwood, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, and will use the travel grant to present research at the Lunary and Planetary Conference in Houston, Tx. in March. Jesse Tarnas ’16, an astronomy and physics double major with a minor in planetary science, is working with Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, on a project using data from the Kepler Space Telescope to measure the atmospheric and planetary properties of distant exoplanets. He is working on a senior thesis and will present preliminary results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Florida this winter. He is also attending the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco to present research he did as part of a summer research program at NASA Ames Space Academy.

Aylin Garcia Soto ’18 was awarded a $5,000 Undergraduate Scholarship, given to a student preparing for a career in STEM. Last summer, Garcia Soto worked at Williams College as part of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) Research Experience for Undergraduates program, of which Wesleyan is a member.

Finally, Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, was awarded a Faculty STEM Education Programming Grant of $5,000 for the “Under Connecticut Skies” project. She is leading an effort that involves several faculty in the Astronomy Department, History Department, and Science in Society Program to create a museum exhibit in the library of the Van Vleck Observatory inspired by the celebration of the observatory’s centennial anniversary. Supported by the Connecticut Humanities Council, Williams led research with a team of student last summer into possible exhibit topics. This NASA CT Space Grant award will support the implementation of the exhibit.





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):



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.

Hughes Recipient of 2015 Bok Prize for Astronomy

Meredith Hughes

Meredith Hughes

For her outstanding contributions to Milky Way research by observational methods, Meredith Hughes, assistant professor of astronomy, received the 2015 Bok Prize in Astronomy from Harvard University.

The prize, named in honor of Astronomer Bart Bok (1906–1983), is awarded to a recent holder of a PhD degree in the physical sciences from Harvard or Radcliffe who is under 35 years of age. Hughes received her PhD from Harvard in 2010, and a MA in astronomy from Harvard in 2007.

Hughes is an expert on planet formation, circumstellar disk structure and dynamics, gas and dust disk evolution and radio astronomy. She studies planet formation by observing the gas and dust in the disks around young stars, mostly using (sub)millimeter interferometers.

At Wesleyan, she teaches the courses Observational Astronomy, Radio Astronomy, Introductory Astronomy and Pedagogy Seminar.

She’s also the 2015 faculty advisor for the Wesleyan Women in Science organization (WesWIS) and serves on the American Astronomical Society Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy and acts as the liaison between CSWA and the Working Group on LGBTIQ Equality.

Courant Explores History of Astronomy at Wesleyan Ahead of Centennial Celebration

cam_vvo_2013-0102225113Ahead of the centennial celebration of Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory, The Hartford Courant explored a bit of observatory history, including some recent discoveries of rare artifacts.

A team of Wesleyan professors and students, together with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, is preparing for an exhibit this spring, “Under Connecticut Skies: Exploring 100 Years of Astronomy at Van Vleck Observatory in Middletown, Connecticut.”

“We’ve been looking into every nook and cranny to see what we have here,” Associate Professor of History Paul Erickson told the Courant. One exciting find: a rare early mechanical model of the solar system, long believed to be lost, known as “Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Planetarium or Columbian Orrery.” Back in the 1830s, the device traveled the country in a wagon to be exhibited to big crowds.

According to the story:

Some of the other finds include an early 18th century French refractor telescope and a late 19th century mechanical calculating machine known as “the Millionaire.” The Swiss-made machine was employed in the principal research of the observatory, attempting to calculate stellar distances. “Astronomy involves a lot of number crunching, so this was a very useful tool before the computer,” Erickson said.

Of particular interest is the observatory guestbook, which records the visits of world-famous astronomers, such as Harlow Shapley, the first scientist to correctly estimate the size of the Milky Way, and Edwin Powell Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named. There is also a visit in the 1920s of a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born astrophysicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Read more about a project to restore the Van Vleck Refractor telescope here. The project is set to wrap up this summer.

Study by Redfield, Johnson ’11 Published in Astrophysical Journal, New Scientist

Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, and Marshall Johnson ’11 are the co-authors of an article titled “The Interstellar Medium in the Kepler Search Volume,” published in The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 802, No. 2, July 2015. The article highlights ways scientists are studying the gas and dust in the galaxy near where the Kepler Space Telescope is discovering exoplanets.

“Stars, with planets, can interact with the gas surrounding them in interesting ways, like bubbles in a drink, where each of the bubbles is an individual star (perhaps with planets) and the drink is the ‘interstellar medium’, the gas in between the stars,” Redfield explained.

In addition, The New Scientist published an article on Aug. 6 titled, “Distant worlds could be sheltering in a bubble around their star,” which focuses on the authors’ Astrophysical Journal study. It reads:

Distant planets may be swaddled in a protective bubble of magnetism and charged particles, courtesy of their parent star. The first study to scrutinize these so-called astrospheres shows that some exoplanets are more well shielded than Earth, others not so lucky – and that their protection can be fickle.

Within our solar system, the sun’s wind of charged particles and radiation forms a bubble called the heliosphere, which repels cosmic rays that can affect Earth’s weather, eat away at the ozone layer and damage DNA. Likewise, astrospheres guard faraway worlds from the ravages of the cosmos, says Marshall C. Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin.

An astrosphere’s size is determined partly by the strength of the star’s winds, and partly by the surrounding interstellar medium of gas and dust. The star’s velocity through the galaxy also has an effect.

“It’s just like if you are driving and you stick your hand out the window. You will experience higher pressure on your hand when you are driving fast than when you are driving slowly,” Johnson says. “If there is a greater relative velocity between the star and the interstellar medium, there will be a greater pressure exerted on the astrosphere.”

Johnson is working on his PhD in astronomy at the University of Texas in Austin. Marshall and Redfield had gone together in 2010-11 to observe at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas, and this project grew out of this work.

Another co-author on the paper, Adam Jensen, was a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan between 2010-2013 and was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Bow Shock Study by Redfield, Cauley Published in Astrophysical Journal

Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, and Wilson Cauley, postdoctoral researcher in astronomy, led the effort on a paper titled “Optical hydrogen absorption consistent with a thin bow shock leading the hot Jupiter HD 189733b” accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

Wilson Cauley, postdoctoral researcher in astronomy, created a animation that shows the transit of bow shock material as it crosses a stellar disk, and the absorption values the model predicts. Cauley's study demonstrates an exciting path forward in attempting to measure exoplanet magnetic fields. 

Wilson Cauley, postdoctoral researcher in astronomy, created a animation that shows the transit of bow shock material as it crosses a stellar disk, and the absorption values the model predicts. Cauley’s study demonstrates an exciting path forward in attempting to measure exoplanet magnetic fields.

Bow shocks are ubiquitous astrophysical phenomena resulting from the supersonic passage of an object through a gas. In this paper, the authors present a robust detection of a time-resolved pre-transit, as well as in-transit, absorption signature around the hot Jupiter exoplanet HD 189733b using high spectral resolution observations of several hydrogen lines.

Better knowledge of exoplanet magnetic field strengths is crucial to understanding the role these fields play in planetary evolution and the potential development of life on planets in the habitable zone.

Cauley’s research is funded at Wesleyan through the National Science Foundation to study the extended atmospheres of exoplanets. For more information and to view a animation that summarizes the paper’s results, visit Cauley’s website.

In addition, Redfield and Cauley will present results from an observation made at the largest telescopes in the world, the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, during the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in August.


Students Share Summer Research at Poster Session

On July 30, Wesleyan’s Summer Research Poster Session took place at Exley Science Center. More than 110 undergraduate research fellows from Math and Computer Sciences, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, the Quantitative Analysis Center, and Psychology presented research at the event. (Photos by Laurie Kenney)

Aidan Bardos ’17 presented her research titled "The Effects of Nutrition on the Immune Response of Wooly Bear Caterpillars Infected by Parasitoid Wasps." Bardos' faculty advisor is Michael Singer, associate professor of biology and environmental studies.

Aidan Bardos ’17 presented her research titled “The Effects of Nutrition on the Immune Response of Wooly Bear Caterpillars Infected by Parasitoid Wasps.” Bardos’ faculty advisor is Michael Singer, associate professor of biology and associate professor of environmental studies.

A poster titled "Immunohistochemical Analysis of Status Epilepticus Mice Treated with Striatal-Enriched Tyrosine Phosphatase Inhibitor" was presented by Matt Pelton ’17. His advisor is Janice Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.

A poster titled “Immunohistochemical Analysis of Status Epilepticus Mice Treated with Striatal-Enriched Tyrosine Phosphatase Inhibitor” was presented by Matt Pelton ’17. His advisor is Janice Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior.

7 Faculty Promoted, 1 Awarded Tenure

In its most recent meeting, the Board of Trustees conferred tenure on Hari Krishnan, associate professor of dance. He joins seven other faculty members who were awarded tenure earlier this spring.

In addition, seven faculty members were promoted to Full Professor: Mary Alice Haddad, professor of government; Scott Higgins, professor of film studies; Tsampikos Kottos, professor of physics; Edward Moran, professor of astronomy; Dana Royer, professor of earth and environmental sciences; Mary-Jane Rubenstein, professor of religion; and Gina Athena Ulysse, professor of anthropology.

Brief descriptions of their research and teaching appear below.

Associate Professor Krishnan teaches studio- and lecture-based dance courses on Mobilizing Dance: Cinema, the Body, and Culture in South Asia; Modern Dance 3; and Bharata Natyam.  His academic and choreographic interests include queering the dancing body, critical readings of Indian dance and the history of courtesan dance traditions in South India. He is a scholar and master of historical Bharatanatyam and also an internationally acclaimed choreographer of contemporary dance from global perspectives.

Professor Haddad teaches courses about comparative, East Asian, and environmental politics. She has authored two books, Building Democracy in Japan and Politics and Volunteering in Japan: A Global Perspective, and co-edited a third, NIMBY is Beautiful: Local Activism and Environmental Innovation in Germany and Beyond. She is currently working on a book about effective advocacy and East Asian environmental politics.

Professor Higgins teaches courses in film history, theory, and genre, and is a 2011 recipient of Wesleyan’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  His research interests include moving-image aesthetics, feature and serial storytelling, and cinema’s technological history. He is author of Harnessing the Rainbow: Technicolor Aesthetics in the 1930s and Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial (forthcoming), and editor of Arnheim for Film and Media Studies.

Professor Kottos offers courses on Quantum Mechanics; Condensed Matter Physics; and Advanced Topics in Theoretical Physics. He has published more than 100 papers on the understanding of wave propagation in complex media, which have received more than 3,000 citations. His current research focuses on the development of non-Hermitian Optics. This year, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has recognized his theoretical proposal on optical limiters as a high priority strategic goal of the agency.

Professor Moran teaches introductory courses such as Descriptive Astronomy and The Dark Side of the Universe, in addition to courses on observational and extragalactic astronomy.  His research focuses on extragalactic X-ray sources and the X-ray background, and his expertise in spectroscopic instrumentation combined with an insightful conceptual appreciation of galaxy formation have positioned him as a leader in observational black hole research.

Professor Royer offers courses on Environmental Studies; Geobiology; and Soils.  His research explores how plants can be used to reconstruct ancient environments, and the (paleo-) physiological underpinnings behind these plant-environment relationships.  His recent work on the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and climate over geologic time has had significant impact on the field of paleoclimatology.

Professor Rubenstein teaches courses in philosophy of religion; pre- and postmodern theologies; and the intersections of religion, sex, gender, and science.  Her research interests include continental philosophy, theology, gender and sexuality studies, and the history and philosophy of cosmology.  She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe, and Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse.

Professor Ulysse offers courses on Crafting Ethnography; Haiti: Between Anthropology and Journalism; Key Issues in Black Feminism; and Theory 2: Beyond Me, Me, Me: Reflexive Anthropology. Her research examines black diasporic conditions. Her recent work combines scholarship, performance, and exposition to ponder the fate of Haiti in the modern world and how it is narrated in different outlets and genres.  She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica, and Why Haiti Needs New Narratives.