8/01/2016 Peter Durantine

Students Explore Heavens Under South African Skies

Three students and a faculty member from Franklin & Marshall College traveled to South Africa earlier this summer to attend an international astronomy conference on using pulsars to detect gravitational waves.

Associate Professor of Astronomy and Faculty Don of Weis College House Fronefield Crawford made a presentation to the International Pulsar Timing Array consortium, a worldwide group of pulsar and gravitational wave astronomers who gather annually to discuss progress in detection.

At a research center at Stellenbosch near Cape Town, the scientists discussed detecting low-frequency gravitational waves using the galaxy's radio pulsars as an array of precise clocks. The conference included a student workshop on pulsars and data analysis techniques used in pulsar research and gravitational-wave detection.

Crawford spoke about F&M's multi-institutional research and education program, the Arecibo Remote Command Center (ARCC). Students work in small teams in F&M's labs to remotely operate the Arecibo 305-meter radio telescope, the world's largest, and search for pulsars in the survey data that is collected.

"We've had two F&M students find new pulsars since the program started about three years ago, and another may have discovered a fast radio burst signal. We are waiting for confirmation of this burst signal via follow-up observations with Arecibo," Crawford said. "We are one of five institutions that now run an ARCC program, and we’ve had a lot of interest each semester from F&M students wanting to participate."

A fourth F&M astronomy student, Jack Madden '14, in 2012 made a rare pulsar discovery in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, 160,000 light years from Earth.

Attending the conference with Crawford was junior astrophysics major Benjamin Nguyen, who found the suspected fast-radio burst, an object that emits powerful radio signals from distances beyond our galaxy. Sophomores Anastasia Kuske and Faisal Alam, and two former F&M astronomy postdoctoral scholars, Brian Christy and Delphine Perrodin, also attended.

Between presentations and science workshops, the students also found time to explore the terrain and wildlife in Earth's Southern Hemisphere: 

  • A view of Table Mountain, considered one of the biggest attractions in Cape Town, from Stellenbosch Mountain. A view of Table Mountain, considered one of the biggest attractions in Cape Town, from Stellenbosch Mountain. Image Credit: Benjamin Nguyen
  • Iverndoorn Game Reserve and the beautiful countryside of South Africa. Iverndoorn Game Reserve and the beautiful countryside of South Africa. Image Credit: Benjamin Nguyen
  • At the game reserve were two African elephants, an endangered species. At the game reserve were two African elephants, an endangered species. Image Credit: Benjamin Nguyen
  • Left to right is senior Benjamin Nguyen, Professor Fronefield Crawford, Brian Christy, Delphine Perrodin (former F&M postdocs), and sophomores Anastasia Kuske and Faisal Alam. Nguyen and Alam spent the summer with Crawford doing research in astronomy, while Kuske worked with F&M Professor Andrea Lommen. Left to right is senior Benjamin Nguyen, Professor Fronefield Crawford, Brian Christy, Delphine Perrodin (former F&M postdocs), and sophomores Anastasia Kuske and Faisal Alam. Nguyen and Alam spent the summer with Crawford doing research in astronomy, while Kuske worked with F&M Professor Andrea Lommen. Image Credit: Benjamin Nguyen
  • Atop Stellenbosch Mountain, where the professors and students hiked to see the South African sunrise. Atop Stellenbosch Mountain, where the professors and students hiked to see the South African sunrise. Image Credit: Benjamin Nguyen
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