News from the Department (2011)

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December 2011

  • The University of Maryland will host a National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Community Day on Thursday, December 15, 9am-6pm. Presentations and discussions will focus on NRAO's major observing initiatives: GBT, EVLA, VLBA, and ALMA. More information and registration is available at the NRAO website. For additional details, contact Dr. Peter Teuben.

November 2011

  • Research Scientists Dennis Bodewits and Stefan Immler were part of a team studying Asteroid 2005 YU55 during its recent close approach to Earth using NASA's Swift satellite. The Swift team studied the asteroid's ultraviolet light to learn more about its surface composition; the results may improve our ability to predict the asteroid's future orbit. For more information, see the NASA press release NASA's Swift Observatory Catches Asteroid Flyby. (Note that the video on that page was created by Dr. Immler!)

October 2011

  • Professor Chris Reynolds is a recipient of a UMD/Smithsonian Institute Seed Grant award. This program provides startup funds for cross-institutional teams to further their research. Professor Reynolds will join forces with a Smithsonian astrophysicist to investigate techniques for estimating the spin and mass of black holes.

  • The biannual UMD-Goddard CRESST Interaction Day will be held in CSS 2400 on Nov. 18, 1-5pm, bringing together researchers from the Department of Astronomy and from NASA/Goddard. The meeting is sponsored by the Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science & Technology (CRESST), which is operated in partnership between UMCP, UMBC, and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in conjunction with NASA/Goddard. The meeting will feature talks by Goddard scientists and poster presentations by department scientists. For additional details, contact Dr. Tracy Huard.

  • A Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium will be held at NASA/Goddard on Nov. 4, bringing together researchers from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics and from Goddard. The symposium will be the first of a series this academic year on various aspects of accretion onto compact objects and particle acceleration. As the first, it will have three talks at the introductory level about topics related to this theme. Please note that NASA/Goddard is a secured facility, and you will require a badge to gain entry to the campus. For more information, see the above link.

September 2011

  • The Astronomy Department hosted Dr. Meg Urry (Yale) for UMD's first ADVANCE Program for Inclusive Excellence Distinguished Lecture on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Over 100 students and faculty packed the lecture hall for Dr. Urry's talk, titled "Women in Science: Why so Few?". She discussed the causes of and possible solutions to gender bias in STEM fields, based on the findings of extensive social science research. Dr. Urry's talk is available on vimeo. Copies of the initial announcement and of Dr. Urry's presentation slides are also publicly available.

  • On Sept. 13, the University of Maryland hosted Dr. Peter Nugent (LBL) for a public lecture about his team's recent supernova discovery in M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, and its possible implications for cosmology. (See a snapshot from the UMD Observatory here!) The talk concluded with a viewing opportunity of the supernova on the roof of Regents Drive Garage using telescopes operated by local amateur astronomers. A crowd of over 400 got a rare and exciting opportunity to learn about an extraordinary event unfolding, literally, in front of their eyes. Thanks go to Observatory Coordinator Elizabeth Warner for helping to organize the event!

  • A Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium was held on Sept. 16, bringing together researchers from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics and from NASA/Goddard. The symposium consisted of a sequence of talks and discussion by current JSI postdocs and research faculty about their projects, including work on gravitational waves, supermassive black holes, and general relativistic dynamics.

  • Undergraduate Steffi Yen has won the College Park Scholars program's 2011 Nancy and Ira Shapiro Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award. This award is conferred upon the Scholar who most exhibits excellence through their Undergraduate Research Project. Steffi is the fifth consecutive winner from our Science, Discovery, and the Universe unit, directed by Drs. Alan Peel and Neal Miller. Congratulations, Steffi!

August 2011

  • Associate Research Scientist Marc Pound was recently featured in a University Senate "Spotlight" for his service from 2009-11 as the sole representative of the university's Research Faculty. During this time, he also served as chair of the Senate's Elections, Representation, and Governance Committee.

  • Alumna Ashley Zauderer (Ph.D. '10) was the lead author on a paper reporting observations of the disruption and accretion of a star by a supermassive black hole in the heart of a distant galaxy, giving rise to a tremendous jet of particles and radiation. The paper's co-authors include current grad student Shaye Storm. The story has been picked up by Nature and New Scientist, among others.

  • The Joint Space Science Institute (JSI) - consisting of astrophysicists and physicists from the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center - is hosting a cross-cutting conference on "Near Field Cosmology as a Probe of Early Universe, Dark Matter and Gravity" in Annapolis, MD, Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 2011. The workshop will bring together a diverse group of scientists to discuss the prospects of using near field astronomical observations to learn about the early universe and the nature of dark matter and to test the law of gravitation on cosmological scales. For more information or to register, see the workshop webpage.

July 2011

  • Graduate students Edmund Hodges-Kluck and Michael Koss have successfully defended their dissertations. The title of Edmund's thesis was "The Hot Atmospheres of X-shaped Radio Galaxies", which he worked on with advisor Chris Reynolds. He will become a postdoc in the fall at the University of Michigan. The title of Mike's thesis was "The Host Galaxies of Ultra Hard X-ray Selected AGN", and his co-advisors were Richard Mushotzky and Sylvain Veilleux. He will be a postdoc at the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii. Congratulations, Edmund and Mike!

  • Prof. Alberto Bolatto and collaborators have used the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and CARMA to find massive amounts of water vapor in the spectrum of a z=3.91 quasar, corresponding to when the universe was less than 2 billion years old. The indicated cloud has roughly 140 trillion times more water than all of Earth's oceans combined, and it is also the earliest evidence that we have of water in the universe. The paper (accepted in ApJ Letters) is here, and the UM press release is here. It has already been picked up by a number of outlets, such as

  • The EPOXI Project and Science Teams, which include many UMD members, received the NASA Group Achievement Award. The award celebrates their accomplishments over the past year, during which the EPOXI space mission visited comet Hartley 2. Research Associate Dennis Wellnitz also received a NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal for his work. Congratulations to all!

  • Undergrad Brett Morris, with the assistance of Elizabeth Warner and Harley Katz, has made the University of Maryland Observatory's first-ever detection of an exoplanet. The exoplanet (which was previously discovered) orbits star HD189733 and was detected through observations of small but regular decreases in the star's light. These correspond to times when the planet passed in front of the star during its orbit. Brett has posted the light curves on his flickr account.

  • A team led by Mark Showalter (SETI Institute) and Doug Hamilton (UMD) has discovered a fourth moon of Pluto using the Hubble Space Telescope. Temporarily named 'P4', it is estimated to be between 8 and 21 miles across. Like Pluto's other moons, Charon, Hydra, and Nix, P4 is believed to be a relic of a collision between Pluto and another large body early in the Solar System's history. See the Sky and Telescope article for pictures and more details!

  • The department has two new professorial faculty! Prof. Jessica Sunshine, formerly a Senior Research Scientist in the department, is known for her work in space mission studies of 'small bodies' in the Solar System, including finding water on the Moon and learning more about comets via the Deep Impact and EPOXI missions. Prof. Drake Deming, formerly employed at NASA/Goddard and also a former Adjunct Professor in our department, is known for his work in discovering 'exoplanets' (planets around other stars) based on the dimming of the stars' light as the planets pass in front of them during their orbits. Both were hired as full Professors, and we're very glad to have them join us!

  • Professor Pat Harrington and Distinguished University Professor Mike A'Hearn are retiring from the department and are now Professors Emeriti. Prof. Harrington's research background has involved making models and observations of planetary nebulae, the clouds of gas expelled from stars in their death throes. Prof. A'Hearn has been a prominent member of high-profile space missions to comets (Deep Impact, EPOXI) and in studies of other 'small bodies' in the Solar System. He will remain fully active as a Research Professor in our department. Congratulations, Pat and Mike!

June 2011

  • A paper by Dennis Papadopoulos that appeared in the Geophysical Research Letters will be highlighted as a "Research Spotlight" in EOS, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). This newsletter is read by the more than 60,000 members of the AGU. The work deals with inducing currents in Earth's polar ionosphere which can be used to study currents naturally produced by solar activity.

  • On June 30, Professor Richard Mushotzky will be awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. This is the highest award that NASA can bestow. In the past decade, an average of 2 to 3 people per year have received this award, most of them astronauts. Congratulations, Richard!

  • Results from the EPOXI mission's flyby of Comet Hartley 2 are featured in the current issue of Science. See also the University of Maryland's press release, which gives a very nice summary and quotes from Prof. Mike A'Hearn and Research Scientists Jessica Sunshine, Tony Farnham, and Lori Feaga.

  • Assistant Research Scientist Jianyang Li, a member of NASA's Dawn science team, was quoted in an MSNBC news article about new pictures of the asteroid Vesta from the Dawn probe. A mysterious dark spot has been observed on the asteroid which appears to match previous images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn is approaching Vesta and will enter orbit on July 16, so we'll soon learn more!

  • Graduate student Mike Koss led a study which discovered a binary supermassive black hole system with two active galactic nuclei, using X-ray data from NASA's Swift satellite. Professor Richard Mushotzky served as a co-author. The black holes are at the heart of galaxy Markarian 739 and are separated by about 11,000 light years. See the UM Newsdesk or NBC articles for additional details.

  • Former undergraduate Lauren Woolsey (B.S. '11) has won a $5,000 Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship. She is one of just 57 students nationwide to win this prize, which is based on undergraduate academic performance, leadership and service on campus and in the community, evidence of graduate potential, and other criteria. In addition, she was awarded the prize for "Most Outstanding Honors Thesis and Defense" in the Department of Physics, in which she double-majored. Lauren did her thesis work with Doug Hamilton on "Tilting Uranus: Toward a Collisionless Model". She'll be entering the astronomy program at Harvard this fall. Congratulations!

May 2011

  • Graduate Student Kari Helgason has won a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF). This supports his thesis work with Massimo Ricotti and Sasha Kashlinsky at Goddard. He's working on "Isolating the Earliest Light in the Cosmic Near-IR Background Fluctuations with JWST". The award can be renewed for up to three years. There were 88 applications in the Astrophysics division, and Kari's was one of 10 accepted, so this is quite an achievement!

  • Senior Research Scientist Jessica Sunshine's proposed Comet Hopper (CHopper) space mission has made NASA's shortlist of three Discovery-class planetary missions selected for further study and funding. (Discovery-class missions have costs capped at $425 M, not including the launch vehicle.) CHopper would have the ability to "land on a comet multiple times and observe its changes as it interacts with the sun." See NASA's or UMD's press releases for additional details. Congratulations to the comet group, and good luck with the final selection round!

  • Research Associate Dennis Bodewits (lead author) and other members of the department's Small Bodies Group studied the aftermath of a rare collision of asteroids with the Swift space telescope which took place in November or early December. Plumes of dust helped to reveal information about asteroid Scheila's composition, noting a lack of ice in the interior. There is a NASA video and NASA article, and the story has also been picked up on NBC,,, and others.

April 2011

  • Senior Research Scientist Surja Sharma has won the inaugural CMNS Distinguished Research Scientist Prize for his work in magnetospheric physics. This award carries a prize of $5,000. Dr. Sharma will deliver the CMNS Distinguished Prize Lecture at 5pm on May 16 in CSS 2400, to be followed by a reception. Congratulations!

  • Graduate students Che-Yu Chen and Kari Helgason are winners of the university's Graduate Student Summer Research Fellowships. These provide support to outstanding doctoral students at 'mid-career,' that is, in the period approximately before, during, or after achievement of candidacy, and are intended to enable students to prepare for or complete a key benchmark in their program's requirements. Summer Research Fellowships carry stipends of $5,000. Congratulations!

  • Graduate student Mike McDonald is the inaugural winner of the CMNS Board of Visitors Outstanding Graduate Student Award. The award is designed to recognize a CMNS doctoral graduate student who has advanced to candidacy and has demonstrated scholarly and research excellence. The award comes with a plaque and a cash prize of $5,000, funded by an endowment created through gifts from Board members. Congratulations to Mike (and to his advisor, Sylvain Veilleux)!

  • Alumnus R. Paul Butler (Ph.D. '93), Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, has been elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Butler is a planetary scientist who has discovered over 330 planets around other stars. He joins "one of the nation's most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to Academy studies of science and technology policy, global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities, and education."

  • NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has extended the Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science and Technology (CRESST) cooperative agreement through 2016. CRESST brings together NASA-Goddard researchers and scientists from the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Universities Space Research Association to build upon the capabilities and strengths in space science of the participating organizations. The Center also works to increase the involvement of minority and women scientists in space science research and to facilitate university student participation in such research. Lee Mundy (Astronomy) is Director of the Center.

  • The astronomy department had a terrific showing this year in the annual awards of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. MaryAnn Phillips won the Outstanding Exempt Employee Award, Susan Lehr won the Outstanding Non-Exempt Employee Award, and Prof. Chris Reynolds won the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dean Halperin will present the awards at the Academic Festival on April 29. There is also an associated monetary award of $1,000. Congratulations to all!

  • Research Associate Bruno Giacomazzo played a leading role in a new supercomputer simulation project that demonstrates that merging neutron stars can produce short gamma ray bursts (GRBs). GRBs have been among the most mysterious phenomena in the universe since they were first observed - they represent some of the most energetic events anywhere - and this study takes us a significant step closer to understanding their origins. See UM Newsdesk or the NASA press release Breakthrough Study Confirms Cause of Short Gamma-Ray Bursts for more details.

  • Undergrad Brian Holler has been chosen as a 2011-2012 Philip Merrill Presidential Scholar, one of the top campus scholarship awards for undergraduates. Typically, only a couple of students from our entire college of ~5000 undergrads win this award each year. Winners select the UM faculty member who has had the greatest impact on their achievements, and Brian selected Prof. Cole Miller. It is particularly remarkable that this is the second time that a Merrill winner has selected Prof. Miller (Alexandra Lockwood selected him in 2006). Brian is working with him on using X-ray observations of neutron stars to constrain their mass and radius.

  • Graduate students KwangHo Park and Rodrigo Camus Herrera were both leaders in the campus-wide Graduate Research Interaction Day (GRID) research competition, with KwangHo snaring 1st place in the "Modeling & Simulation" panel and Rodrigo getting 2nd place in "Pushing the Boundaries of Science". In addition to the honor, winners receive travel funds. Congratulations!

March 2011

  • Dr. Melissa Hayes-Gehrke's I-series course "Collisions in Space: The Threat of Asteroid Impact" was featured in the Center for Teaching Excellence's newsletter, "Teaching and Learning News". The course was one of the very first I-series courses to be offered, and it continues to fill up every semester!

  • On Mar. 25, the Department of Astronomy hosted one of a series of town hall meetings sponsored by the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences to discuss the 2013-2023 Planetary Decadal Survey. This survey is an important document which is used as guidance by NASA for prioritizing missions. Presenters included Ralph McNutt (APL) and Jim Green (Head Planetary Science, NASA HQ).

February 2011

  • Prof. Sylvain Veilleux and Dave Rupke (Ph.D. '04) have obtained the first unambiguous observational evidence that demonstrates the role of quasar winds in limiting the growth of the central black hole of the host galaxy. The Gemini Telescope data revealed a powerful ~1100 km/s outflow extending 2-3 kpc from the galaxy's nucleus in all directions in the plane of the sky! See, e.g., Universe Today for more details.

  • Prof. Stacy McGaugh's latest work finding evidence in favor of the alternative gravity theory MOND has been published in Physical Review Letters. His data from gas-rich galaxies fall precisely where predicted a priori by the modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND). This is consistent with the action of a single effective gravitational force law, but it poses a serious fine-tuning problem for lambda-CDM, the current cosmological paradigm. The story was also picked up by BBC.

  • Graduate student Megan DeCesar has discovered two new millisecond pulsars. These are neutron stars that spin hundreds of times each second, their radio beam sweeping past Earth each rotation. They have recently been found to also emit gamma-ray pulsations by the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, leading astronomers to search unidentified gamma-ray sources for radio (and later gamma-ray) pulsations. Megan used this technique to discover a fairly bright but previously undetected millisecond pulsar that is likely a gamma-ray pulsar as well. She also searched globular clusters that were detected in gamma-rays and found another new millisecond pulsar that may be a cluster member.

  • The inaugural Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium will be held in room CSS 2400 on Friday afternoon, Feb. 25th, with lunch provided at 12:30 followed by a sequence of talks and discussion. These mini-symposia are intended to bring together people from Astronomy, Physics and NASA/Goddard to talk about a focused area. Both specialists and non-specialists are welcome; a major part of the idea for these meetings is to peel away the jargon and promote discussion that includes the non-specialists. The topic for this first symposium is millisecond pulsars, the most rapidly spinning type of pulsar.

  • The CARMA observatory team has built a new correlator that handles all 23 radio antennas (giving 253 baselines), a big upgrade from the old 15 station (105 baseline) correlator. The first light image has just been obtained by Kevin Rauch, Marc Pound, and Lee Mundy et al. of Quasar 3C454.3, an extremely distant, highly energetic object containing a black hole at its center. Science from the new CARMA-23 is soon to follow!

  • Prof. Alberto Bolatto has been selected for the prestigious 2010 Cottrell Scholar Award. This is an early career award recognizing a strong research program and commitment to teaching excellence, awarded in astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Alberto joins an illustrious group of previous winners, including at Maryland our own Sylvain Veilleux (1998), as well as Dan Lathrop (Physics, 1997), John Fourkas (Chemistry, 1997), and Lyle Isaacs (Chemistry, 2001). Alberto can add this to his recent NSF CAREER award!

January 2011

  • Grace Deming has won the 2011 American Astronomical Society's Education Prize "for blazing the trail of astronomy education research; providing us with the Astronomy Diagnostic Test, the first means within our discipline to assess the success of our instruction; tirelessly promoting the use of research to guide our instruction; and educating us about the importance of collaborative group learning to improve student understanding." The Education Prize is the top honor in astronomy education awarded by the American Astronomical Society.

  • Justin Desha-Overcash, a physics major with a second major in astronomy and a minor in geophysics, was killed on Jan. 11 in his off-campus home. Justin was one of the telescope operators at the campus observatory since the fall of 2007. In addition, he served as a teaching assistant for undergraduate astronomy courses and tutored athletes in physics and math. We have lost a wonderful student. Our condolences to his family and friends.

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