A Shared Curiosity

Sheer numbers coupled with robust interdisciplinary collaborations with other colleges and research institutes have put Penn State on the map as an internationally recognized leader in many areas of astrophysical research.

A shared curiosity about the Universe and our place in the cosmos has long fueled questions among astronomers, astrophysicists, and the general public alike. How large is the Universe? Is it infinite? What is dark matter? Are there other Earth-like planets in existence?

These are some of the key questions that Chris Palma, teaching professor and associate dean for undergraduate students in Penn State’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, anticipates fielding each year as part of outreach programming led by the department. Between field trips, public lectures, in-service workshops for teachers, departmental open houses, planetarium shows, stargazing nights, and the annual AstroFest celebration—now in its 21st year—the department sees thousands of visitors of all ages who share an innate interest in the subject matter.

“Astronomy is something that people just find interesting,” says Palma, who says television shows like Cosmos have continued to fuel peoples’ fascination with the origins of the Universe. “It’s a field that so many of us get involved in because of that outreach aspect and helping to answer some of those big questions that people have. It’s something that connects all of us.”

A male faculty member shows samples of space rock to children and their parents at a festival

Chris Palma at Art of Discovery

Chris Palma, teaching professor and associate dean for undergraduate students in Penn State’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, shares samples of space and planetary rocks with visitors at the Art of Discovery booth during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, just one of many outreach activities in which members of the department are involved. 

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

“It’s a field that so many of us get involved in because of that outreach aspect and helping to answer some of those big questions that people have. It’s something that connects all of us.” –Chris Palma, teaching professor and associate dean, Astronomy and Astrophysics

Making an Impact Globally

The pursuit of those answers and training new generations of scientists equipped to tackle questions that are literally out of this world is the primary focus of the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Founded in 1965, the department has experienced a tremendous amount of growth in the past twenty-five years. New faculty hires and a growing number of Ph.D. and post-doctoral scholars are evidence of not only the robust research activity taking place but also the opportunities available to incoming undergraduate and graduate students looking to work on projects with global impact.

“The department has grown a lot since the late 1990s,” says Palma. “We have a strong cohort of junior faculty and that’s been great to offer to students interested in the program—access to a really talented group of faculty members who are working on really interesting things.”

The department is involved in a wide variety of observational, experimental, and theoretical projects that cover most active areas of astrophysical research. Individual faculty members were involved in NASA’s Swift Observatory, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III/IV. Teams from Penn State built the primary scientific instrument on the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which allows scientists from around the world to obtain unprecedented X-ray images of exotic environments to help understand the structure and evolution of the universe. Penn State also plays a role in the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, which carries instruments enabling the most detailed observations of gamma ray bursts to date. Science and flight operations for Swift are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center at the University Park campus.

Eric Ford, professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, leads a research group that adapts state-of-the-art methods from statistics and data science for application to astronomical observations and the study of exoplanets. Ford, who is also the director of the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds (CEHW)—which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year—also is a member of the Center for Astrostatistics.

HET_night

The Habitable Zone Planet Finder (HPF) being built at Penn State will be installed at the William P. Hobby-Robert E. Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world. The HET, located in west Texas, was conceived by Penn State astronomers.

IMAGE: Penn State

"We can meet the needs of a project over its full lifecycle here at Penn State." —Eric Ford, professor, Astronomy and Astrophysics

Since arriving at Penn State in 2013 as part of an interdisciplinary faculty search sponsored by the Institute for CyberScience, he has joined a group of scientists in the department who have held leading positions in the exoplanetary science community. Among them, Evan Pugh Professor Alexander Wolszczan, who, along with Dale Frail of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, discovered the first planets outside our solar system, which began a new era of planet hunting. Ford, who was part of NASA’s Kepler Science Team that discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in its habitable zone—the region around a star where liquid water might form on the surface of an orbiting planet and thus potentially sustain life—believes that critical mass is a differentiator for Penn State.

“We have a broad range of faculty, which certainly strengthens our centers,” says Ford, “We can meet the needs of a project over its full lifecycle here at Penn State, from designing complex instrumentation such as the Habitable Zone Planet Finder, to conducting and analyzing observations of other planetary systems, to exploring the physical implications of the resulting discoveries including the origins of our own solar system.”

Fueled by Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations

Leveraging knowledge and resources across the University to better inform future space missions is characteristic of the research professor Randall McEntaffer conducts, along with a team of post-doctoral researchers as well as graduate, and undergraduate students. Utilizing the Materials Research Institute’s Nanofabrication Lab, McEntaffer’s group observes the energy output of stars, which is important to better understand our own galaxy. This research is accomplished through the design and fabrication of X-ray diffraction gratings: an array of grooves meant to disperse white light into individual X-ray “colors.” This device allows observers to more accurately measure the spectra of light from the remains of exploded stars, known as supernova remnants. To perform their tests, the team is a key member of NASA’s suborbital rocket program, which allows them to send materials into space.

“You have to build a device that is scientifically and technologically sophisticated enough for a very condensed flight, which is why we rely so heavily on other areas of expertise like material engineering and physical science.” —Randall McEntaffer, professor, Astronomy and Astrophysics

The process, which involves seven-story tall rockets, is a pretty demanding undertaking. The total flight time for the payload is about fifteen minutes, which only allows for about five minutes above the atmosphere in which to complete the scientific observations.

“It’s a big challenge,” says McEntaffer. “You have to build a device that is scientifically and technologically sophisticated enough for a very condensed flight, which is why we rely so heavily on other areas of expertise like material engineering and physical science.”

Crediting the availability of the Nanofabrication Lab with his decision to come to Penn State, McEntaffer says leveraging facilities and resources across campus is what makes his team’s work unique.

Sarah Hawks, a student within the College of Engineering majoring in Engineering Science, learned of McEntaffer’s lab by attending AstroFest.

“I was looking for a lab in which to conduct work for my thesis,” says Hawks, “I remember touring the lab during AstroFest and became extremely interested in the work they were doing, so I followed up with the connections I had made.”

Today, Hawks is part of a student group ranging from astronomy and astrophysics majors to engineers, working on various components of the sub-orbital rocket missions.

Advancing the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is relatively new to Penn State in terms of an academic offering.

In 2018, Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, launched Penn State’s first graduate-level course in SETI — one of only two in the United States — and he also is working to establish the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, a global hub for SETI research and education, at University Park.

“We’re beginning to think about planetary systems in a more holistic way,” says Wright, who is also member of CEHW. “We’re at a point where the planets we’re discovering have a lot of similarities and dissimilarities to solar system objects, so we begin to ask ourselves, ‘could we detect life on other planets?’”

This question piqued the interest of Isiah Holt, a senior astronomy and astrophysics major. As a first-year student at Penn State, Holt remembers attending a lecture given by Wright at a Penn State Astronomy Club event.

“He talked about SETI and about Tabby’s Star, which I remembered hearing about in the news,” recalls Holt. “After the talk, I approached him, and with zero context, asked if I could work with him. I just thought the subject matter was so interesting.”

Holt is currently spending the summer conducting research at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. The observatory sits in the National Radio Quiet Zone, a roughly 13,000-square-mile area where radio transmissions are highly restricted in order to minimize interference. Not only is Green Bank one of the world’s premier radio astronomy observatories—hosting the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet, the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope—but it is, in fact, home to the oldest radio telescopes in the world.

“I’m trying to train a generation of scholars who know how to think about the larger questions associated with the origins and limitations of life, and in doing so, make advancements that move the field as a whole forward.” —Jason Wright, professor, Astronomy and Astrophysics

“I’m essentially doing code and looking for a line in a plot that represents a signal,” says Holt. “That signal indicates something that is higher than background noise, and therefore worth investigating further to see what it might be.”

Holt’s experience follows a recent trip led by Wright in which he and a group of students in his SETI graduate course traveled to Green Bank to gather data and conduct further analysis. By giving students such experiences, Wright is hoping to essentially construct a framework for students to be able to discover their own breakthroughs in the field.

“Because SETI is such a small field, anything we do has a big impact,” explains Wright, who for his achievements in the field, received the prestigious Drake Award in May 2019. “I’m trying to train a generation of scholars who know how to think about the larger questions associated with the origins and limitations of life, and in doing so, make advancements that move the field as a whole forward.”

Instilling a natural sense of curiosity while maintaining a healthy respect for the scientific process is what makes students and faculty alike reliable ambassadors for the outreach mission of the department.

“When undergraduates and graduates come into the department, I tell them that outreach is part of the career of being a scientist,” says Palma. “I’m always amazed that as much as we do as staff and faculty in the department, more often than not it’s the students who will come in and say, ‘why don’t we do this,’ or ‘have we tried that,’ so we definitely have students who go far beyond what we as a department do.”

AstroFest and Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts

Since 1999, the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics has been inviting the public to Davey Laboratory for AstroFest, a four-night festival which includes activities, talks, and presentations including stargazing through telescopes. The program will take place nightly beginning Wednesday, July 10, through Saturday, July 13 from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m.

Members of the department will also be demonstrating a virtual planet-building game at the Art of Discovery booth as part of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts on Thursday, July 11, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.