National Science Foundation Grant to Improve Relay of Space Imaging

The Robert A. Millikan Laboratory is home to Pomona College's Astronomy department • Lucas Carmel

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently approved a $4.5 million grant toward an astronomy project involving Pomona College, California Institute of Technology and other institutions.

The project, called Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen (GROWTH), aims to accelerate the global relay of space imaging among participating institutions in Japan, Taiwan, India, Israel, Sweden, Germany and other U.S. observatories. The money was granted through the NSF's Partnership for International Research and Education.

“People often associate astronomy with leisurely star-gazing, but there are actually a lot of things happening very quickly that astronomers might just have missed,” said Pomona Astronomy Professor Bryan Penprase, who is leading the educational component of the program. “The project will give us a new window to the universe by allowing us to sense things changing in a rapid timeframe, things you don’t always expect.”

Many telescopes view visible light and therefore only work during the nighttime, when the sun does not overwhelm the light of other stars. Since it is always nighttime somewhere in the world, the project enables astronomers to continuously view images of the sky. If one institution observes a supernova, gamma ray burst or other phenomenon, rapid and continuous imaging at the other institutions can significantly maximize the length and depth of observation.

“Back in the ‘80s, it took us maybe five years to get an image of the entire sky to a significant depth," physics major Franklin Marsh PO ’17 said. "Now, with technology, we can do a complete imaging of the sky every four days.” 

The project is useful for astronomy and astrophysics researchers of a variety of space phenomena. By continuously observing the sky and immediately relaying key observations, GROWTH aims to deepen scientists' understanding of asteroids, gamma-ray explosions, supernovae and countless other events in space. 

“There is high science value to seeing supernovae, which are intimately related to a lot of different aspects of astrophysics, immediately after they happen,” Marsh said. “They provide a lot of the heavy elements and chemicals within the universe that eventually form planets.”

A portion of the grant will be allocated to improving astronomical education, research, and collaboration. GROWTH will also enhance study abroad opportunities for students of participating institutions, enabling them to work with international astronomers and contribute to new discoveries within the relatively short period of time of just a few months.

“It will really bring exciting new dimensions of intercultural learning and collaboration in astronomy to students, which is a great opportunity for them,” Penprase Penprase said.

Other educational aspects of the project will include a global observational astronomy class including Pomona, Caltech, Williams College, Swarthmore College and several other institutions. A July educational conference on astronomy teaching at CalTech and an annual winter Asian meeting of the Partnership for International Research and Education will also be held. 

The grant process, which began last year, was led by Caltech professor Mansi Kesawal. It was officially announced by the NSF on September 25, 2015. GROWTH is itself an outgrowth of Caltech’s Palomar Transient Factory project, which Caltech's website describes as a “fully-automated, wide-field survey aimed at a systematic exploration of the optical transient sky.”