NASA Funding Allows for Galaxy Research at SUNY Brockport

With funding from NASA, faculty and students will conduct new research into starburst galaxies and galaxy clusters.

When Assistant Professor of Physics Ka-Wah Wong started at SUNY Brockport in the fall of 2020, he began to work on two grant proposals hoping that NASA would award the school funding to analyze data taken from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a telescope in outer space designed to detect X-ray emission from celestial bodies.

In March 2021, he was awarded $105,400 from NASA.

Wong, whose expertise is galaxy clusters, said he’s excited about the work and the discoveries that the department will make in astrophysics.

This summer, student researchers will undergo training to learn about the data, systems, and technology. Meanwhile, NASA scientists will provide plenty of support to students, including a helpdesk, online tutorials, workshops, and opportunities to visit facilities.

Each project will likely have one student-funded to work on it, but Wong invites any interested students to join the team. He says this experience is about more than just science; it involves statistics, programming, and presentation skills that are essential for future careers or graduate school.

“Research is very important for undergraduate students,” he said. “Research opportunities go beyond the classroom by challenging students with questions that may not have answers yet.”

Wong expects there to be new discoveries with opportunities to present findings at national or international conferences. He is also planning to apply again for more funding to support more student research.

These two projects seek to understand more about the impact of stellar explosions on galaxies and the large-scale structure of the universe, Wong explained.

The first project will examine the starburst galaxy, M82, which has a high star formation rate — meaning that stars are being created rapidly. Many of these stars are larger than our Sun but are dying quicky — “about every 10 million years, which is short in the cosmic time scale,” said Wong. When these stars die “nearly at the same time,” they explode, causing “superwinds” that move toward the outskirts of the galaxy.

Those superwinds in the outskirts are what Wong and his students will research. Any discoveries will allow an evaluation of the total energy budget in the hot gas, helping to foster an understanding of the role of starbursts in galaxy evolution.

The second project will look at galaxy clusters, which are large collections of hundreds to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity.

When looking at a cluster, human eyes would see mostly stars in the galaxies, but Brockport’s research will study X-rays from the hot gas filling the whole cluster. The research will also take into account dark matter, which takes up most of the cluster’s mass. Wong will use Chandra and other observatories to learn about the physical properties of the hot plasma near the outskirts of the Abell 2259 cluster, where the physical conditions are still poorly understood.

Thanks to the NASA grant, students at SUNY Brockport will be among the first to witness some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe.

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Author: Meghan Finnerty

Posted: March 31, 2021