When Star-Gazing Gets Technical
Cal State East Bay is the proud owner of a new
global science tool —
meet the undergraduates using and helping to build it
Assistant Professor Amy Furniss has taken her interest in the study of very high energy astroparticle physics to new heights.
Rather than simply interpreting cosmic phenomena through her association with VERITAS (the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System based in Arizona), she’s made an investment with her faculty startup funding from Cal State East Bay to purchase one of two mirrors for a new telescope at the observatory site in Tucson. The telescope, the best of its kind in the world, will be used to gather and share data on cosmic events with scientists across the globe.
“There are just a few other instruments like this worldwide,” Furniss says. “To corroborate scientific findings, we use VERITAS to communicate with NASA space telescopes so they can repoint their direction and we can all try to catch the same observations when an event occurs that requires further investigation.”
For the lay person, Furniss is the proud owner of a very expensive, very large mirror — one that is also enabling her undergraduate students to glimpse the fiery battles of stars and distant galaxy formation. But they’re not only observers in this new scheme of ownership. Cal State East Bay students are taking a hand in everything from writing custom software for the new telescope to analyzing gamma ray data to measuring the distance from Earth to the most extreme galaxies in the universe.
Senior Glenn Norris, Jr., who is double majoring in computer engineering and physics, was one of three students who recently went with Furniss to visit her new purchase in Arizona. Because of his background in both fields of science, Norris has been tasked with writing a new operating program for the optical equipment, which is currently being constructed beside the old telescope.
“I’m writing real-time analysis for the new telescope that’s being built; I got to see what the old one does and how it’s being used in observing the night sky and showers, which are the events we want to understand,” Norris says. “So now I can drive the software in that direction. If we simply continued using the old software, there would be glitches and delays — and we want to see things happening with no or as little delay as possible.”
But the coding isn’t what motivates him:
“Trying to wrap your head around how big the universe is and how small we are, it’s mind-blowing, it’s humbling. At every moment there’s a star blowing up, galaxies being formed from dust; we’re lucky that our galaxy formed the way it did — and why is that? Why did it form so uniquely, so that we could all be here, totally unaware of all these other cosmic events that are going on just outside?”
Instruments such as VERITAS will help shed light on Norris’ questions — and those of scientists everywhere. For example, the telescope recently caught a phenomenon that Furniss and her peers are now scrambling to figure out.
“Recently, there was an unprecedented detection of gamma rays from a galaxy that seems to have two super massive black holes orbiting each other inside of it,” Furniss says. “And all of the sources that have ever been detected before only had one.”
Because physicists have always believed the gravitational force of a black hole meant total annihilation for anything that crossed its path, how two super massive black holes could continue to orbit one another for billions of years is a theory-shattering event.
“Basically what it means is that what we thought we understood has been turned upside down,” Furniss says. “The whole process of galaxy formation needs to be rethought.”
And she has more students working on the fundamental questions that will someday help us figure out answers to those types of questions.
For example, Trent Rosenquist, who hopes to obtain his Ph.D. and someday teach at Cal State East Bay, is measuring the distance between Earth and other galaxies.
“I’m really interested in frontier science — it’s amazing just to be out there and look through that telescope lens and to try and answer those fundamental questions of how the universe formed,” Rosenquist says. “I’m looking for what’s called ‘redshift’ — it’s how fast these galaxies are moving away from us. We know that the universe is expanding at a certain rate given the Hubble constant, so using that, we can determine how far away [these galaxies] are.”
More simply, redshift is a way of describing how a galaxy appears in visible light, but not how bright it actually is. Visible light tells astronomers how far away and how old galaxies are, but interference between the gamma rays a galaxy emits and the photons from stars that cross its path change how the galaxy looks, which is a key part of disentangling the mystery of its origins.
Senior Ethan Rinck, by comparison, is working on what Furniss calls the “largest dataset on a source VERITAS has ever taken.”
“Even though a lot of what I’m doing is going through data and staring at a computer screen, I really don’t mind because the subject matter is so interesting,” Rinck says. “I now see myself working in research and doing this type of work into the future.”
It’s exactly the outcome Furniss was hoping for in taking students out to the telescope — inspiring them to pursue futures in physics — but there’s been a personal return on investment that took the professor by surprise.
“Working with these undergrads down at the VERITAS telescope site was inspiring,” she says. “They all jumped into the opportunity, asking questions, operating the telescopes, discussing what we saw when we looked into the sky. Although I’ve been down to the site more than 100 times, this was the best trip yet. I can’t wait to continue the experience for more students in the coming years.”