Posts related to astronomy and astrophysics research

U.S. Senators introduce a resolution to recognize the Arecibo Observatory Telescope

The massive dish at Arecibo Observatory as seen in spring 2019. (Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/University of Central Florida)

On Friday December 3rd, a group of U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced a bipartisan a resolution to recognize the significant scientific, educational, and economic contributions made by the Arecibo Observatory telescope.

“The telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory was a scientific marvel, extensively expanding our understanding of the universe,” said Blumenthal. “Its collapse left a significant educational void for our country and the scientific community across the world. I’m proud to recognize its important contributions alongside my colleagues and express our strong support for further studies for how best to replace—and build upon—this telescope’s capabilities at the world-class Arecibo Observatory.”

Read more here, including a link to the full resolution. The research of several UConn physicists has greatly benefited from the Arecibo telescope over the years.

Prof. Chiara Mingarelli awarded NSF grant

Chiara Mingarelli, Assistant Professor of Physics at UConn, is the lead researcher on a $650,000 Collaborative Research Grant from the National Science Foundation, half of which is earmarked for UConn, to conduct an experiment to prove the existence of supermassive black hole binaries. This grant will combine, for the first time, traditional astronomy with gravitational wave astronomy.

“This project is really setting up a whole new way to think about low-frequency gravitational-wave and extragalactic astronomy,” Mingarelli says. “With our new method, not only can we make predictions about the amplitude of the gravitational wave background, but we can also make predictions of where the likeliest and closest supermassive black hole systems are.”

For more information about Prof. Mingarelli research, see the recent article in UConn Today.

A Physics Ph.D. Student’s Step-By-Step Journey to Storrs and Distant Galaxies

UConn Physics graduate student Mohammed (Mo) Akhshik works on data gathered using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and has led to exciting discoveries, some while he served as the science Principle Investigator of the REQUIEM HST program from which he is co-author on two publications, one in Nature and one in Nature Astronomy. Akhshik is also a recipient of a national fellowship as a NASA FINESST Future Investigator.

Akhshik gleans new information about very distant galaxies using a phenomenon called gravitational lensing. Due to the forces of gravity, light from distant galaxies is focused to appear brighter, and the images appear in different parts of the sky at different times, explains Akhshik. The researchers were also able to detect new details of distant galaxies through observations from different telescopes, which Akhshik says is almost like layering different filters on the same image.

For more details, see the article in UConn Today.

Professor Daniel Anglés-Alcázar research featured in ‘UConn Today’ and CBC radio interview

At the center of galaxies, like our own Milky Way, lie massive black holes surrounded by spinning gas. Some shine brightly, with a continuous supply of fuel, while others go dormant for millions of years, only to reawaken with a serendipitous influx of gas. It remains largely a mystery how gas flows across the universe to feed these massive black holes. UConn Assistant Professor of Physics Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, lead author on a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, addresses some of the questions surrounding these massive and enigmatic features of the universe by using new, high-powered simulations.

For more details, please check the article in UConn Today, and Prof. Anglés-Alcázar’s recent radio interview by Canadian Broadcast Corporation.

Undergraduate Researcher Nicole Khusid featured in UConn Today

Physics major Nicole Khusid, a rising senior at UConn, was featured in a UConn Today article about her research. Nicole has been working on gravitional lensing of distant sources of gravitational waves, seeking to understand their multimessenger signals and detectability by future astrophysics facilities. Nicole was awarded a SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fund) award to perform this research wtih Prof. Chiara Mingarelli. For the full story, see the article in UConn Today.

Prof. Battersby’s research featured in UConn Today article

Professor Cara Battersby (center)
Professor of Physics Cara Battersby (center) talks to attendees at a solar eclipse viewing in 2017.

Professor Cara Bettersby’s research is featured in the article “The Study of Big Data: How CLAS Researchers Use Data Science” published by UConn Today.

Prof. Battersby’s work focuses on describing and studying the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which she calls an “experimental playground” for the distant cosmos. Her work described the spectroscopy of the galaxy’s center, which analyzes imagery to understand the chemical makeup of the area, as well as its temperature and the velocity of objects.

Battersby works on data from the Submillimeter Array facility, a collection of eight powerful telescopes situated atop Mount Maunakea in Hawaii. The telescope can collect up to a terabyte of data every day, and Battersby’s project used 61 days of data.

Battersby refers to her computer as “her laboratory,” and ensures the students in her classes do, too. In her courses, she often assigns programming and analysis problems, like using a large data set to determine the material composition of the Sun.

“We have a lot of the tools to train students in data science,” she says. “Research is moving in that direction, and students in our programs are prepared for it.”


A Signal from Beyond

Looking for ripples in the fabric of spacetime.

UConn astrophysicist Chiara Mingarelli is part of a team of researchers who recently published data on a hint of a signal that sent ripples of excitement through the physics community. These monumental findings are the culmination of twelve and a half years of data gathered from NANOGrav — a network of pulsars across the galaxy — all in the hopes of detecting gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are generated when galaxies merge and supermassive black holes at their centers collide and send low-frequency gravitational waves out into the universe. The team thinks the source of the signal could be gravitational waves, but it will take about 2 more years of data to be sure.

The findings sparked the interest of other physicists with their own speculations about the signal, such as cosmic strings or primordial black holes. Though still a couple of years away, Mingarelli says the final results could also help test General Relativity or even open the door to entirely new physics.

This article first appeared on UConn Today, February 15, 2021

UConn Researcher an Architect for Astronomical Survey Making Observations Toward a New Understanding of the Cosmos

November 2, 2020 – Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s fifth generation – a groundbreaking project to bolster our understanding of the formation and evolution of galaxies, including the Milky Way – collected its very first observations on the evening of October 23.

Image: The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s fifth generation made its first observations earlier this month. This image shows a sampling of data from those first SDSS-V data. The central sky image is a single field of SDSS-V observations. The purple circle indicates the telescope’s field-of-view on the sky, with the full Moon shown as a size comparison. SDSS-V simultaneously observes 500 targets at a time within a circle of this size. The left panel shows the optical-light spectrum of a quasar–a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, which is surrounded by a disk of hot, glowing gas. The purple blob is an SDSS image of the light from this disk, which in this dataset spans about 1 arcsecond on the sky, or the width of a human hair as seen from about 21 meters (63 feet) away. The right panel shows the image and spectrum of a white dwarf — the left-behind core of a low-mass star (like the Sun) after the end of its life.Image Credit: Hector Ibarra Medel, Jon Trump, Yue Shen, Gail Zasowski, and the SDSS-V Collaboration. Central background image: unWISE / NASA/JPL-Caltech / D.Lang (Perimeter Institute).

“In a year when humanity has been challenged across the globe, I am so proud of the worldwide SDSS team for demonstrating — every day — the very best of human creativity, ingenuity, improvisation, and resilience. It has been a wild ride, but I’m happy to say that the pandemic may have slowed us, but it has not stopped us,” says Juna Kollmeier, director of the project known as SDSS-V.

The project is funded primarily by an international consortium of member institutions, along with grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

Jonathan Trump, UConn assistant professor of physics, has a long history with SDSS, and is one of the architects for the fifth installment of the program. He is also serving as the cadence coordinator for the project’s black hole science goals.

“My very first undergrad research project was an SDSS project. I have worked on SDSS as a post-doc, and I am working on it now as faculty,” Trump says. “I’ve been part of it from the first SDSS iteration, and as it has taken off, so has my career.”

Trump and his colleagues will focus on three primary areas of investigation with SDSS-V, each exploring different aspects of the cosmos using different spectroscopic tools. Together, these three project pillars—called “Mappers”—will observe more than six million objects in the sky, and monitor changes in more than a million of those objects over time.

The survey’s Local Volume Mapper will enhance our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution by probing the interactions between the stars that make up galaxies and the interstellar gas and dust that is dispersed between them. The Milky Way Mapper will reveal the physics of stars in our Milky Way, the diverse architectures of its star and planetary systems, and the chemical enrichment of our galaxy since the early universe. The Black Hole Mapper will measure masses and growth over cosmic time of the supermassive black holes that reside in the hearts of galaxies, as well as the smaller black holes left behind when stars die.

Trump says another novel aspect of SDSS-V is repeat observation, which he will be scheduling over the duration of the project as cadence coordinator, to help gather more data about the evolution of different features of matter near black holes.

“SDSS-V has more repeat observations as part of the plan. I would say that broadly in astronomy there is an emphasis on repeat observations,” he says. “For instance, black holes are fascinating – they are rips in space-time, and they are extremely exotic. Even one snapshot reveals how exotic they are, but they are also dramatically variable, and when we observe them day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year, we see dramatic changes in their emission, which we think correspond to dramatic changes just beyond the event horizon of the black hole. We are learning that you can reveal a lot about the physics of what is going on around black holes by watching them as a function of time.”

SDSS-V will operate out of both Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, home of the survey’s original 2.5-meter telescope, and Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, where it uses the 2.5-meter du Pont telescope. SDSS-V’s first observations were gathered in New Mexico with existing SDSS instruments, as a necessary change of plans due to the pandemic. As laboratories and workshops around the world navigate safe reopening, SDSS-V’s own suite of new innovative hardware is on the horizon—in particular, systems of automated robots to aim the fiber optic cables used to collect the light from the night sky. These will be installed at both observatories over the next year. New spectrographs and telescopes are also being constructed to enable the Local Volume Mapper observations.

Trump points out that another important aspect of SDSS, especially in a time of remote learning and researching, is the fact that data are made public and accessible.

“It is easy to access and mine the SDSS databases and make interesting studies,” he says. “They have wonderful tutorials for schools and for researchers to get started. They make it so easy for people to dive in. It is a very rich opportunity; it’s well organized and publicly shared.”

To learn more about the program, explore the data, or keep up with the research, visit

This article first appeared online on UConn Today, November 2, 2020.

AAS Author Interview with Gloria Fonseca Alvarez

October 14, 2020 – AAS Author Interview Series

UConn graduate student Gloria Fonseca Alvarez was featured with a video in the Author Interview series produced by the American Astronomical Society (AAS):


In this video, Gloria talks about her work to understand the inner environments of black holes. The paper highlighted in the video shows that the orbits of emission-line gas around supermassive black holes are often smaller than expected from previous observations. We’re very proud to see Gloria’s exciting work recognized in the AAS Author Series!