Union College to Lead Undergraduate Radio Astronomy Team

Union College Associate Professor Rebecca Koopmann has been awarded funding ($172,495) for a five-year collaborative NSF grant entitled “The Undergraduate ALFALFA Team,” to develop undergraduate research opportunities within the Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA (ALFALFA) survey, a major astronomy observational survey led by astronomers Riccardo Giovanelli and Martha Haynes of Cornell University. The project is mapping a large area of the sky at radio wavelengths appropriate for the detection of neutral hydrogen gas in other galaxies, using the Arecibo radio telescope, the largest telescope in the world, at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Estimated to take 6-7 years to complete, the survey is expected to detect more than 20,000 galaxies out to a distance of 750 million light years. Koopmann has been collaborating with the ALFALFA group since the beginning of the survey two years ago, using the data in her work on the star formation and gas properties of nearby galaxies. She spent her sabbatical year 2006/2007 at Cornell University as a as a guest of the Department of Astronomy and a Visiting Scientist at National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center which runs Arecibo Observatory.

The grant provides undergraduate students and faculty at Union and 13 other primarily undergraduate institutions access to a major, ongoing, scientific research project involving a collaboration of astronomers around the world. Koopmann will work with Colgate University astronomer Thomas Balonek and Georgia Southern University astronomer Sarah Higdon to develop the Undergraduate ALFALFA Team program. Core components include an annual group workshop at Arecibo, observing runs for several groups per year at Arecibo, a summer student research stipend program supporting 7 students per year culminating in a presentation at a national meeting, and funding to provide computers to each team school. The annual workshops will be modeled after two NSF-sponsored ALFALFA workshops held at Union College in the summers of 2005 and 2006. The workshops at Arecibo Observatory will feature observing sessions and lectures and group activities about Arecibo science. The first workshop is scheduled for January 2008.

This grant makes it possible for undergraduates to contribute to the scientific output of the ALFALFA extragalactic HI survey and followup studies while learning valuable lessons about the way that a science collaboration functions through their interactions with their faculty mentors, their peers, and the leaders of the ALFALFA project.

As part of the grant, Koopmann will also collaborate on curriculum and public outreach endeavors with Jose Alonso, Director of the Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center at Arecibo Observatory, resulting in publicly-available activities and exercises written in English and Spanish.

Astronomers around the world are collaborating on the ALFALFA project. One of the main goals of the project is to discover low mass, ‘starless’ galaxies, which contain hydrogen gas but have not yet formed stars. The abundance of these “dark” galaxies, their characteristics and location are key clues to understanding how galaxies form and evolve throughout the universe.

Four Union College students have participated to date in ALFALFA research and activities (Nathan Calabro, ’08, Michael Gillin, ’08, Bilal Mahmood, ’08, and Jay Read, ’07’). Mahmood is a co-author of the first data catalog paper released by the ALFALFA collaboration. Calabro is currently working on a senior thesis with advisor Koopmann.

(See the story in the Union College Chronicle for more.)