News from the Department (2012)

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December 2012

  • Alum Kartik Sheth (Ph.D. '01) is featured in an NSF "Science Nation" report on the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Dr. Sheth is an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, VA, and is part of the team preparing ALMA for operation. ALMA consists of 66 radio telescopes observing at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths and is the most powerful array of its type in the world. It will be fully operational in March.

November 2012

  • The department is offering two new courses in the spring, ASTR 230 ("The Science and Fiction of Planetary Systems") and ASTR 305 ("Astronomy and the Media"). Both are I-Series courses targeted at non-majors, and both will satisfy requirements for the Astronomy minor. ASTR 230 will explore the properties of planets using science fiction movies, novels and short stories as a springboard. ASTR 305 will use astronomy (and other science) news stories to give students the tools and motivation to critically evaluate scientific news for themselves. We're looking forward to seeing how our students like these new offerings!

  • Dr. Steve Squyres will give a talk on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 4:00pm in Physics 1412, titled "Science Results from the Mars Exploration Rover Mission". Dr. Squyres is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, and he is the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER). Following the talk, there will be a reception in the Chemistry Building Atrium.

October 2012

  • Dr. Brigette Hesman led a team which discovered an exceptional storm in Saturn's atmosphere using the Cassini spacecraft. Described as an "unprecedented belch of energy", the storm raised the temperature in Saturn's stratosphere 150 degrees F above normal. It also produced a large quantity of ethylene gas, far more than was believed possible for Saturn. For more information, see NASA's press release NASA Spacecraft Sees Huge Burp at Saturn After Large Storm.

  • We are saddened to report that Dr. Gart Westerhout passed away on October 15. Dr. Westerhout was the first Director of our Astronomy Program, and guided the establishment of astronomy at Maryland as Director from 1962 to 1973. He left Maryland in 1977 to become Scientific Director of the U.S. Naval Observatory, where he served from 1977 to 1993 before retiring. For more information about his career, please see his Washington Post obituary.

September 2012

  • Dr. Surja Sharma is the co-editor of a new book in the American Geophysical Union's Geophysical Monograph Series called Extreme Events and Natural Hazards: The Complexity Perspective. The book "examines recent developments in complexity science that provide a new approach to understanding extreme events. This understanding is critical to the development of strategies for the prediction of natural hazards and mitigation of their adverse consequences."

  • A Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium will be held in CSS 2400 on Oct. 5, bringing together researchers from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics and from Goddard. The symposium is titled "JSI Scientists Jamboree". Talks will be given by the latest JSI Scientist appointees; the speakers are Jonah Kanner, Owen Perry, Tanja Hinderer, Philip Graff, Laura Blecha, and Roman Shcherbakov. For more information, see the above link.

August 2012

  • "Icarus" (the leading planetary science journal) has just published a virtual issue to celebrate its 50th anniversary, including the best papers published in the journal in the past 50 years, as judged by the Icarus editors. Leading the list is a 1995 paper by Distinguished Prof. Emeritus and Senior Research Scientist Mike A'Hearn on "The Ensemble Properties of Comets: Results from Narrowband Photometry of 85 Comets, 1976-1992".

  • Alum Mike McDonald (Ph.D. '11) and Prof. Sylvain Veilleux are members of a team which has discovered a cluster of galaxies that may break the record for the largest cluster known, with an approximate total mass 2000 times greater than our Milky Way. Moreover, the central galaxy in the cluster is producing over 700 solar masses of new stars per year, beating the previous record holder by a factor of 7 and the Milky Way by a factor of ~200. For more information, see their Nature paper or the media coverage in, USA Today among others.

  • Graduate student Alice Olmstead has won three different travel awards to support her travel to attend and present results at the XXIV Canary Islands Winter School on "Astrophysical Applications of Gravitational Lensing" in Tenerife, Spain! Her awards accumulated for this travel include: 1) AAS International Travel Award (round-trip airfare), 2) Graduate School International Conference Student Support Award ($500), and 3) Graduate School Goldhaber Travel Award ($600). Alice will be conducting her own summer school on how to fund your conference travel. Congratulations, Alice!

  • Our department employees and affiliates have had a strong showing in this year's NASA awards! Ms. Marcia Segura will receive a 2012 NASA Exceptional Public Service Medal for outstanding contributions to the Agency's mission. Dr. Noah Petro will receive a Early Career Achievement Medal. Dr. Alex Kutyrev won a NASA Peer Award from the NASA/Goddard Astrophysics Sciences Division. We are very fortunate to have scientists of this caliber; congratulations to all of you!

July 2012

  • 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 workshop on "Nature's Particle Accelerators" on October 22-25, 2012, in historic Annapolis, Maryland. The meeting will address the central scientific issues associated with particle acceleration across the universe

  • The Discovery Channel Telescope held a "First Light Gala" ceremony on July 21. Department chair Stuart Vogel and Prof. Sylvain Veilleux were among the many dignitaries in attendance. The new telescope has a 4.3 meter mirror, the fifth largest in the continental US. UMD is a major partner, with guaranteed telescope time for faculty and student research beginning in 2013 or 2014. For more information, see the Discovery blog article or the media coverage in Sky and Telescope,, and SpaceRef.

  • Prof. Drake Deming wrote a "News and Views" article for the July 25 issue of Nature. He commented on a paper by Sanchis-Ojeda et al. concerning a system of Kepler planets that are demonstrated to lie very closely in the plane of their star's rotational equator - a close parallel to our own Solar System. He was interviewed and quoted by Popular Mechanics, NBC, and the Discovery Channel.

  • We mourn the passing of Emeritus Professor Roger Bell on July 1. Dr. Bell was a professor in the Department of Astronomy for his entire career following his Ph.D. in 1961 at Australian National University and a one year stint as a lecturer in Australia. He served as Director of the Astronomy Program from 1987-1991, playing a major role in elevating the astronomy program into a separate, full-fledged department of astronomy. Bell specialized in the discovery of physical properties and compositions of stars, and was one of the first astronomers to recognize the importance of curious chemical signatures among our galaxy's oldest star clusters. Prior to his retirement in 1998, he supervised 18 Maryland Ph.D. dissertations, including 11 in the 10 years following 1970. His most recent Ph.D.s were Mike Briley (1990; UNC-Appalachian State); Paul Butler (1992; DTM); and Rob Cavallo (1998; Lawrence Livermore Labs). See his Baltimore Sun obituary for more details.

  • Dr. Suvi Gezari has joined the Department of Astronomy as an Assistant Professor. Dr. Gezari is an expert in time-domain astrophysics, and her research interests include active galactic nuclei, the demographics and evolution of supermassive black holes, and the tidal disruption of stars by black holes. She was most recently a Hubble Fellow working at Johns Hopkins University. We're very glad to have her join us!

June 2012

  • Alumna Janet Luhmann (Ph.D. '74) has been awarded the 2012 COSPAR Space Science Award in honor of her outstanding contributions to our understanding of the Solar System. Dr. Luhmann is currently a Senior Fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California Berkeley and the Principal Investigator of the IMPACT suite of instruments on the twin spacecraft STEREO mission.

  • Graduate student Jithin George won Honorable Mention in the Summer 2012 Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Awards competition. The awards recognize 'exemplary research' for student posters presented at meetings of the American Astronomical Society. Jithin, who works with Prof. Richard Mushotzky, presented a poster titled "The Outskirts Of Galaxy Clusters: To r200 And Beyond With Suzaku, XMM-Newton And Chandra." Congratulations, Jithin!

  • The Comet Hopper (CHopper) space mission proposal team, led by Prof. Jessica Sunshine, made their final pitch to NASA's review panel in Denver on June 7, supported by a strong presentation from UMD President Wallace Loh. The mission is one of three competing proposals in the final round of NASA's Discovery Program selection process, and the decision will be made next month. If selected, CHopper would be a major 13-year undertaking: building instruments for the mission, visiting comet 46P/Wirtanen, landing on it multiple times in different locations, and studying changes in the comet as it approaches the sun.

  • Over 500 visitors attended the department's event for the June 5 transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. Alas, the clouds were less than cooperative, and there were only a few very brief opportunities to see the transit. Fortunately for those of you who aren't inclined to wait until 2117 for the next opportunity to view a Venus transit, there are online resources such as TransitOfVenus with links to pictures and time-lapse recordings. Thanks to Elizabeth Warner for organizing the department's event and to our many volunteers who helped out with it!

May 2012

  • Dr. Abderahmen Zoghbi and Prof. Chris Reynolds led a team which detected a long-sought X-ray 'echo' from a supermassive black hole in the center of galaxy NGC 4151. Flares from a mysterious X-ray source near the black hole cause brightening in the material accreting around the black hole. The 30-minute time delay between the flares and the echoes provide information about the scales and geometry of the black hole/accretion disk system, suggesting that the X-ray source may be at the base of jets of relativistic particles that are characteristic of such systems. For more information, see the UMD Newsdesk report.

April 2012

  • 65,000 visitors braved cool and cloudy weather to visit the university campus for Maryland Day on Apr. 28. We had limited opportunities to use our solar telescopes, but the department kept the visitors entertained with our "Cosmic Comets" and "Ask an Astronomer" booths, and 20 minutes of sunshine gave some lucky individuals a chance to see sunspots on the Sun's surface. The AstroTerps student club gave an excellent presentation on astronomical citizen science. Thanks so much to all our volunteers (too many to name here, alas!), especially Elizabeth Warner for her hard work in coordinating the department's participation.

  • A Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium will be held at NASA/Goddard on May 11, bringing together researchers from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics and from Goddard. The theme will be "Electromagnetic Counterparts to Gravitational Wave Sources", and speakers will include Ori Fox, Neil Gehrels, Ranjan Vasudevan, Bruno Giacomazzo, and Peter Shawhan. 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.

  • Graduate students Mark Avara, Dheeraj Pasham, Jessica Donaldson, and Rodrigo Camus Herrera were all leaders in the campus-wide Graduate Research Interaction Day (GRID) research competition. Mark's oral presentation took 1st place in the "Exploring Our Physical Environment" panel, and Dheeraj, Jessica, and Rodrigo took 1st (oral), 2nd (oral), and 2nd (poster) place respectively in "Pushing the Boundaries of Science". In addition to the honor, winners receive travel funds. Astronomy grads made a strong showing: our students won 7% of the available awards despite being only 0.4% of the grad population! Congratulations to all of our winners!

  • Graduate student Jessica Donaldson has won one 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. Jessica is doing her research work at NASA/Goddard with Dr. Aki Roberge. Summer Research Fellowships carry stipends of $5,000. Congratulations!

  • Dr. Conor Nixon received a 2011 Robert H. Goddard Exceptional Achievement Award for Science. The award came in recognition of his "exceptional efforts to maximize the scientific return of Titan from the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer." Congratulations!

  • A team led by Dr. Dennis Bodewits released images of Comet Garradd, which is being monitored by NASA's Swift satellite during its first-ever passage close to the Sun. The comet showed gas and dust from sublimation activity at a significantly greater distance from the Sun than expected, and current research is focusing on the cause of this activity. Other UMD team members include Drs. Stefan Immler, Mike A'Hearn, and Tony Farnham. Amateur astronomers can view the comet through small telescopes for the remainder of the month. For more details, see the UMD Newsdesk report and NASA press release NASA's Swift Monitors Departing Comet Garradd.

  • Graduate student Hao Gong has won an Ann G. Wylie Dissertation Fellowship for his research work with Prof. Eve Ostriker on protostellar core formation and the characteristic core mass in giant molecular clouds. The Graduate School fellowship is a one-semester award intended to support outstanding doctoral students who are in the final stages of writing their dissertation and whose primary source of support is unrelated to their dissertation. Wylie Fellowships carry a stipend of $10,000 plus candidacy tuition remission and $800 toward the cost of health insurance.

  • Prof. Doug Hamilton will give a talk titled "Mooning Pluto: Searching for Rings and Satellites around the Dwarf Planet" on Saturday, Apr. 14, at 7:30pm in the Dragun Science Building Room 110 on the Arnold campus of Anne Arundel Community College. The presentation is part of "Planet Walk", a day and evening of free AACC community programs focusing on our solar system. Prof. Hamilton co-led the discovery of Pluto's fourth moon.

  • A team of astronomers led by Dr. Francesco Tombesi published an article in February's Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society-Letters, demonstrating that ultrafast outflows (UFOs) from galactic super-massive black holes could explain the link between black holes and galaxy bulge size. The research was covered in Scientific American, February 29.

March 2012

  • Dr. Jian-Yang Li participated in a press briefing on results from the Dawn space mission at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Dawn "has been orbiting Vesta since July 2011, mapping its surface morphology and composition at ever-increasing resolution using visible, infrared, and gamma-ray mapping tools." The images reveal strange bright patches associated with craters that appear to represent original, 4-billion-year-old material. For more information, see the NBC article.

  • Undergrad Harley Katz, a double major in astronomy and physics, was awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for his work with Professor Massimo Ricotti on the formation of globular clusters. Harley was one of 2 winners from UMD and only 300 winners nationwide. The award provides up to $7500 toward undergraduate education expenses and goes to students "who have outstanding potential and intend to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences, or engineering." Harley is also working on a separate research project on Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) with Professor Stacy McGaugh and Dr. Peter Teuben.

  • College Park Professor Neil Gehrels is the recipient of COSPAR's 2012 Massey Award. The award "recognizes the outstanding contributions to the development of space research, interpreted in the widest sense, in which a leadership role is of particular importance." Previous winners include Herbert Friedman, Robert Wilson, and Rashid Sunyaev. The award will be presented on July 16 during the 39th COSPAR Scientific Assembly, Mysore, India.

  • A Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium will be held in room CSS 2324 on Friday afternoon, Apr. 6, from 2:00-5:30pm. The symposium will consist of a sequence of talks on the topic of "Plasma Physics and Particle Acceleration". The speakers are from the Department of Physics and from NASA/Goddard; the speakers are Julie McEnery, Jordan Goodman, Kara Hoffman, Jim Drake, Jon McKinney, and Alice Harding.

  • In celebration of Prof. Richard Mushotzky's 65th birthday, the Joint Space Science Institute (JSI), the UMD Department of Astronomy, and NASA/Goddard are hosting a three-day scientific meeting titled "Energetic Astronomy: Richard Mushotzky at 65". The meeting will take place June 4-6, 2012, in Annapolis, MD. Topics will include various aspects of high-energy astrophysics, including black holes, active galactic nuclei, the high-energy astrophysics of galaxies, galaxy clusters, cosmology, and space missions. The deadline for early registration is May 1, while the deadline for regular registration is May 28. We hope to see you there!

  • The American Physical Society spotlighted a Physical Review Letter which was supported by the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) project led by Professor Dennis Papadopoulos. The MURI project, "Fundamental Physics Issues on Radiation Belt Dynamics and Remediation," is a $7.5 M program that involves theory and modeling, laboratory and space experiments. The spotlighted article described research which may help to mitigate the damage done to orbiting satellites and space missions by electrons in Earth's radiation belts.

February 2012

  • Observatory Coordinator Elizabeth Warner made an appearance on WUSA-9's morning show on Feb. 29 in an interview to explain why we have a leap year every 4 years.

  • A Joint Space Science Center (JSI) mini-symposium was held in CSS 2400 on Feb. 17 (2:00-5:30pm). The meeting's focus was on accretion astrophysics, bringing together researchers from the Departments of Astronomy and Physics and from Goddard. We had over 100 attendees, showing the strength of the new JSI partnership!

January 2012

  • Dr. Melissa Hayes-Gehrke was selected by the campus as one of ten 2011-2012 CTE-Lilly Fellows. This year's Fellows are charged with coming up with ideas to help implementation of the new General Education requirement for undergraduate Scholarship in Practice (SIP) courses. The Fellowship includes a $4000 stipend to support Dr. Hayes-Gehrke's research. Congratulations, Melissa!

  • Graduate student Alice Olmstead was selected by the American Astronomical Society as one of nine grad student winners of the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Award for her poster on "A magnified view of star formation at z=0.9 from two lensed galaxies" presented at the AAS meeting in Austin. This work is in collaboration with Jane Rigby (GSFC) and Sylvain Veilleux. She was among approximately 260 students who entered the Chambliss competition. She'll be receiving a medal from the AAS to honor this achievement. Congratulations, Alice!

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