Two Franklin & Marshall College professors are part of a national consortium of astronomers that recently received a $14.5 million grant to build a center for the purpose of detecting gravitational waves -- elusive ripples in the fabric of space and time.
Associate Professors of Astronomy Andrea Lommen and Fronefield Crawford are co-investigators with 23 other scientists around the country working in collaboration with two astronomers in Canada. They are part of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, or NANOGrav. Lommen is the founding chair of the organization.
"There are hundreds of researchers trying to predict what we will see when the first gravitational waves are detected, but every time the universe affords us a new tool, we end up being surprised by what we discover," said Lommen, director of F&M's Grundy Observatory. "I can't wait for the dawning of this era and the unveiling of its surprises. I'm thrilled that F&M students get to participate in the birth of this field."
The National Science Foundation (NSF) will distribute the funding over five years for NANOGrav to create a virtual Physics Frontiers Center (PFC), which will operate from the various astronomers' institutions. The PFC is expected to address "a transformational challenge in astrophysics: detection of low-frequency gravitational waves." F&M's share of the grant is $398,000.
Astronomers predict that the waves are made from large-scale, high-energy cosmic events, such as orbiting pairs of massive black holes found at the centers of merging galaxies, or are relics from the period just after the Big Bang when the universe expanded rapidly from a minuscule volume in a tiny fraction of a second.
Citing Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, NANOGrav astronomers say those events produce waves that "distort, or ripple, the actual fabric of the cosmos as they emanate throughout space." Lommen said the waves have such a long wavelength -- significantly larger than our solar system -- that scientists cannot build a detector large enough to observe them.
But the universe offers a detection tool: millisecond pulsars, which are the spinning remains of massive stars that exploded as supernovae. Pulsars are "nature's most precise celestial clocks, appearing to 'tick' every time their beamed emissions sweep past the Earth like a lighthouse beacon," causing small fluctuations from which gravitational waves can be detected, according to NANOGrav.
At F&M, 25 students are collecting pulsar data from Arecibo, the world's largest telescope in Puerto Rico. They are searching for new millisecond pulsars at the College's recently established Arecibo Remote Command Center, said Crawford, chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department, manager of the command center, and a NANOGrav member.
"The NSF grant will provide new resources for F&M students to participate in cutting-edge pulsar and gravitational wave research, allowing them to make connections with students at other institutions," Crawford said. "These experiences are valuable for students looking to further pursue astronomy after graduation or just broaden their education."
Founded in 2007 with 17 members from the United States and Canada, NANOGrav has since grown to 55 scientists and students at 15 institutions. The grant-awarded center will provide funding for 23 senior personnel, six postdoctoral researchers, 10 graduate students, and 25 undergraduates from 11 institutions, including F&M.