Project to Target Exploding Stars

The next big astronomical development is here, and Pomona College’s
astrophysics students have the chance to be a part of it.

The National Science Foundation is funding Pomona and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with a $9 million grant to upgrade
the facility at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego.

This new astronomical survey project, called the Zwicky Transient
Facility (ZTF), aims to upgrade an instrument at Palomar that will allow
astronomers to observe difficult-to-detect cosmic phenomena that appear and
disappear quickly: transients.

Pomona’s associate professor of physics and astronomy Philip Choi
said that capturing transients, like exploding stars, is significant because through those discoveries astrophysicists were able to come to an important conclusion that the universe was in acceleration.

“This project, the frontier of the field, is really asking the
question of ‘How is the night sky dynamic?’ ‘How are things changing on what time
scales?’” Choi said. “And what you find is things change on time scales of seconds
to minutes to hours.”

Choi said that the project will focus on building the instrument
for the next five years. After its completion, data
collection using the updated instrument will continue for a decade or more.

The ZTF is “pushing a frontier into the unknown,” Choi said. “We’re
trying to create new fields of exploration. We know that we’ve just reached the
tip of the iceberg, in some sense. There’s an entire collection of
astrophysical objects that we haven’t even observed yet.”

Pomona students’ involvement in ZTF will occur on several levels.
Undergraduates will participate in both the astrophysics and engineering sides
of the project, including building the instrument and developing software. 

The college will train students to do so over the summer at a one-week, “boot camp”-style workshop. According to Pomona’s website, the boot camp will begin this summer and will train student researchers from Pomona, Harvey Mudd College,
Caltech and other U.S. universities to learn instrumentation and data analysis techniques for astrophysics observation.

According to Choi, the workshop will provide the small skill set
necessary for “bigger and bigger” student contributions over time. The students
practice with Pomona’s own one-meter-long telescope in
Wrightwood, Calif.

Astronomy major David Khatami PO ’16 commented on the “innovative”
and “cutting-edge” qualities of the astronomical development and called the
project “a new age of astronomy.”

“The way I see it, it will definitely train a new generation of
astronomers,” Khatami said.

Khatami added that the project is “much bigger than Pomona and
Caltech.”

Choi, too, emphasized the scope of the initiative.

ZTF is “more than just a single camera,” Choi said. “It is the integration of
a series of telescopes around the world.”

Choi noted that the experience will be invaluable to Pomona
students not only on a personal level, but on a practical one as well. The
opportunity to participate in this research will open up “a main point of
conversation” in graduate school or industry job interviews.

Khatami said that a takeaway from Pomona’s involvement in ZTF is
its emphasis on undergraduate engagement.

“Our involvement shows how Pomona, even as a small liberal arts
college, is situated such that we are able to reach out,” Khatami said. “The
big difference between Pomona and Caltech or other universities is that there
the research is about research, and here, the research is about the students.”

Choi also commented on the benefits that ZTF will bring to
undergraduates, since it allows undergraduates to participate in research usually
restricted to Caltech graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“When this frontier science happens, you’ll have contributed to
that piece,” Choi said. 

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