UCSB astronomers continue to make discoveries in outer space
From stellar explosions to supermassive black holes to galactic halos, the astronomy and astrophysics programs at UCSB are taking steps every day to answer the most puzzling questions about outer space.
In collaboration with the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, Las Cumbres Observatory in Goleta and the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, professors and students alike get to work with the biggest optical telescopes on the planet.
Although UCSB’s Physics Department is relatively small, it’s ranked among the top 10 graduate programs in the nation. Professors, graduate and undergraduate students in the department’s UCSB Astro programs participate in cutting-edge research on things such as stellar evolution, galaxy feedback, supernovae and pulsars.
Students and professors have been involved with groundbreaking discoveries and projects.
UCSB astronomers were part of finding the universe’s second most distant quasar and the first known planet with two “suns.” A research group at UCSB launched a prototype wafer scale spacecraft, and a UCSB alumnus even flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station.
The success seen by this rather small department and its reputation have been building up over a long period, according to a UCSB physics professor and cosmologist who played a large part in discovering the second most distant quasar.
“It goes back to really the founding days of the university and the early members of the department,” Professor Joseph Hennawi told the News-Press. “We have a principle that when we hire people, we try to hire people that are better than us. This culture of excellence has just been maintained over the years by very carefully hiring the right people and maintaining this collegial atmosphere.”
He said that “culture of excellence” was what attracted him to UCSB in 2016. However, he added that while the faculty is top notch, it’s really about the students.
“If you look at the top research that comes out of the UCSB physics department, a lot of it is really driven by the young researchers,” Professor Hennawi said. “It may be the older researchers that tend to be the focus of the press releases, but it really is the students.”
COVID-19 hasn’t halted the astronomers’ research, either. Although researchers aren’t able to travel to Hawaii to utilize the Keck Observatory, the department set up a virtual desktop so it can run all the instrumentation from a room on campus.
Crystal Martin is a professor in the physics department and an observational astronomer. Studying galaxy formation and evolution, she frequents the remote operation of the telescopes.
Professor Martin is currently exploring the assembly of galaxies and how gas flows in and out of them. Alongside that, she’s comparing older, more distant galaxies with younger, newer galaxies to learn about evolution through logging sizes, chemical compositions and gas flow.
She said something worth noting that many overlook is that undergraduate and graduate students are just as involved in this research as the professors.
“This summer, five undergraduates are working on different pieces of data from these telescopes,” Professor Martin told the News-Press. “They’ll be co-authors on research papers and they’re learning firsthand in a way where it’s not some academic exercise. They’re doing something real and discovering both the pitfalls and joys of that real hands-on learning.”
She added the department is “incredibly fortunate” to be in collaboration with the Keck Observatory.
“Although our department is small, the quality of the faculty is just incredibly high,” she said. “It’s a really strong research environment for doing observational astronomy in particular. Having access to the telescopes is a big deal.”