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Searching for Bursts of Light Billions of Years Old

As the daughter of two meteorologists, Franklin & Marshall junior Kristina Rolph always had her eye on the sky. But it was a visit to NASA's Cape Canaveral, Fla., the gateway to space, that fixed the astrophysics major's gaze on the planetary heavens.

"Since the beginning of high school I've known that this is what I want to do," Rolph said. "Of course, what part of space I want to study changes from year to year."

Through F&M's Hackman Scholar program, and the Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research, both of which support students conducting challenging, high-level projects with faculty researchers, Rolph spent the summer working with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford. Their project is searching for radio pulsars in neighboring galaxy M33 and finding cosmological transient sources of radio emission from the early universe. 

  • Searching for Bursts of Light
  • Franklin & Marshall junior Kristina Rolph, through F&M's Hackman Scholar program, and the Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research, spent the summer working with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford in search of cosmological transient sources of radio emission from the early universe. (Photo by Eric Forberger)

Pulsars are the size of Lancaster City, roughly 7-square miles. They are extremely dense neutron stars that rotate rapidly. Their two magnetic poles send out electromagnetic radiation at lighthouse-like intervals as they spin. Cosmological transients, which are a more recently discovered phenomenon, are harder to find than pulsars. These are rare bursts of extremely bright radio emission that do not repeat. Pulsar observations are one of the only kinds of observations that can detect these bursts, Crawford said.

"These bursts are from explosions that occurred billions of years ago, and their light is just reaching us now," Crawford said. "However, the physical origin of these explosions remains a mystery.”

Rolph's work entailed processing raw pulsar survey data from the 52-year-old Parkes radio telescope in Australia and plotting the results on charts and graphs. She then studied about 500 of these charts displayed on a computer screen in the Hackman Physical Sciences Laboratories building on the F&M campus, looking for giant peaks with specific signatures that would tell her whether she had found a cosmological transient. It's a task with an elusive reward.

"Occasionally, I'll find a tiny peak, but that's interference," Rolph said. "There are only six known cases of these being found so far, and those have only been discovered in the last six years. So it's a relatively new field."

Rolph's research reached beyond the computer lab on campus. She and Crawford traveled to Puerto Rico and spent a week at the Arecibo Observatory. The facility's 1,000-foot radio telescope is the world's largest single-aperture telescope. This fall, Rolph and Crawford will begin collecting data from Arecibo that Rolph will process and study in her search for pulsars in the M33 galaxy.

"We'll be controlling the telescope remotely from F&M," Crawford said.

Following the footsteps of senior Jack Madden, who discovered a pulsar in 2012 while working as a Hackman scholar with Crawford, Rolph is undaunted by the search for transients, although she acknowledges the odds of finding one are slim.

When not searching for transients, Rolph's extracurricular pursuits include a one-hour program every Sunday on WFNM, Franklin & Marshall College's radio station, where she plays a mix of music, though she is a pop fan. She also writes about student life for the online magazine Hercampus.com.

A teaching assistant in the astronomy lab, Rolph aims to attend graduate school in order to one day teach astronomy and research the planets in our solar system and beyond. It's a passion her meteorological parents no doubt influenced.

"They study the atmosphere," Rolph said. "I'm going a little further -- past the atmosphere."