Astronomy and Astrophysics

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Astrophysicists at University of Rochester are working on answering questions about the formation, evolution, and deaths of stars, planetary systems, black holes, and galaxies.

The astrophysics group is working on improving our understanding of these astrophysical phenomena using observations with modern astronomical telescopes, developing instrumentation and detector arrays for more powerful future observatories, and improving our theoretical understanding both analytically and through computer simulations.

These advances have impacted the fundamental studies of the origins, dynamics, and emission for all scales of astrophysical phenomena -- from large-scale structure in the universe, to galaxies, to stars and planetary systems.

Department Research

Our faculty and laboratories conduct a variety of research in both observational and theoretical astronomy and astrophysics:

Segev BenZvi – Professor BenZvi participates in the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole and the DESI experiment. IceCube searches for nearly massless subatomic particles called neutrinos. These high-energy astronomical messengers provide information to probe the most violent astrophysical sources: events like exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars. The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) experiment is performing dark energy measurements using baryon acoustic oscillations using data from the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO). The group is also studying the growth of large scale structure using high-throughput galaxy redshift surveys They are developing fast algorithms for the analysis of galaxy cluster statistics and the identification of voids. They study cosmic tomography using the Lyman-alpha forest and do searches for cosmologically significant transients (supernovae, kilonovae, and tidal disruption events).

Eric Blackman - Professor Blackman’s research spans a broad range of topics in  Theoretical Astrophysics. He has worked on both the physics and the astrophysical phenomenology of a range of sources from planets to galaxies. Topics have included accretion disc physics on all scales, astrophysical jets, the interstellar medium and star formation, high energy astrophysics (active galactic nuclei, micro-quasars, supernovae,  gamma-ray bursts, compact objects), planetary nebulae,  stellar and planetary astrophysics.  Plasma astrophysics, fluid dynamics, astrophysical particle acceleration, and  the origin and dynamics of astrophysical magnetic fields on all scales from planets to galaxies have been recurrent themes in his work. Professor Blackman is also a member of the Plasma Physics program, which is part of the University's interdisciplinary program in High-Energy Density Plasmas. In collaboration with faculty at the University's Laboratory for Laser Energetics (an Inertial Confinement Fusion facility) he is seeking to bridge the gap between astrophysical and laboratory plasmas.

Rip Collins – Professor Collins manages The Center for Matter at Atomic Pressures (CMAP), a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Physics Frontier Center funded with $12.96 million from the NSF. CMAP is hosted at the University of Rochester in collaboration with researchers at MIT, Princeton, the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis, the University of Buffalo, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Research at CMAP will focus on understanding the physics and astrophysical implications of matter under pressures so high that the structure of individual atoms is disrupted. Visit the CMAP website to learn more.

Regina Demina – Professor Demina is engaged in analyzing data that represent the fruition of years of efforts toward construction of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at the Large Hadron Collider including studies of the heavy quarks, W and Z bosons, and searching for new physics, such as supersymmetry. The group is also actively engaged in upgrading the detector for the High Luminosity LHC era that will significantly extend the discovery potential and allow exploration of the Higgs sector to its fullest. These studies are now ongoing at the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, again focusing on studies of the top quark, W and Z bosons, and investigation of the Higgs boson and search for supersymmetric particles. Additionally, Professor Demina also participates in the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) experiment, studying cosmic tomography using the Lyman-alpha forest and searching for cosmologically significant transients (supernovae, kilonovae, and tidal disruption events).

Kelly Douglass – Professor Douglass’ current research involves studying the large-scale environmental influence on galaxy evolution. She is interested in understanding how the large-scale environment affects galaxy evolution. An active member of the DESI collaboration, she is working on updating VoidFinder to identify the dynamically-distinct voids in the large-scale structure in DESI's upcoming galaxy survey. One of her other current interests is studying the dark matter content of galaxies and measuring the ratio of dark to baryonic matter in galaxies using SDSS MaNGA. In conjunction with this, she is leading a secondary targeting campaign in DESI to measure the rotation curves of spatially resolved spiral galaxies that are part of the Siena Galaxy Atlas. In addition, she is also developing a photometric classification scheme to identify galaxies in the Green Valley of the color-magnitude diagrams. This transient population will allow study of galaxies transitioning between the star-forming Blue Cloud to the queiscent Red Sequence, including understanding the various quenching mechanisms responsible for shutting down a galaxy's star formation.

Adam Frank – Professor Frank is a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun, and his computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. His research focuses on the birth of stars and death of stars.  Most of his studies employ the equations of fluid dynamics applied to astrophysical environments and his studies of hypersonic beams of plasma from dying solar-mass stars involve the study of astrophysical magneto-hydrodynamics (MHD). Professor Frank’s research group has developed the AstroBEAR Adaptive Mesh Refinement de used for simulating MHD systems in various astrophysical contexts. In his writing for broader audiences, Frank is interested in the intersection between science and other aspects of human culture. The relationship between science and the human sense of spirituality or "sacredness" as defined by scholars such as Mircea Eliade and William James represents one domain of his work. Issues related to science, technology, and the human future—particularly in light of climate change—represents another dimension of his interests. Ongoing studies, both scientific and philosophical into the nature of consciousness and its place in the physical world comprises another area Frank explores in his writing.

Miki Nakajima – Professor Nakajima is a planetary scientist studying origin and evolution of planets and moons in the solar system and beyond. Her goal is to build theoretical models to explain geochemical, geophysical, and astronomical observations. Her research focuses on the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets.

Alice Quillen – Professor Quillen’s research includes observational, numerical and theoretical studies of the dynamics of exoplanets, moons, satellites, planetesimals and gas in circumstellar disks, asteroids, and the dynamics of stars in galaxies. She also works on particle integration codes, active and viscoelastic soft matter, granular systems, the transient dimming sky (light curves), biophysics and robotic physics, quantum information, and active galactic nuclei. Her lab focuses on experiments of active biological materials, granular systems relevant to rubble asteroids and low cost robotics.

John Tarduno – Professor Tarduno studies the nature of Earth’s early magnetic field and the implications for Earth evolution, from core to atmosphere. Unique facilities allow Professor Tarduno and his students to measure the magnetization of individual silicate particles. The group is also investigating the magnetic signature of meteorites as probes of parent body history, giving scientists a unique window into the assembly and thermal history of the protoplanets in the early solar system.

Petros Tzeferacos – Professor Tzeferacos’ Flash Center for Computational Science at the Department of Physics & Astronomy of the University of Rochester is home to several cross-disciplinary computational research projects at the intersection of plasma astrophysics, laboratory high energy density physics, and fusion energy. Anchoring the Center's work is the FLASH code, an open multiphysics simulation code for plasma physics and astrophysics with a wide international user base in academia, the national laboratories, and industry. Flash Center research combines theory, numerical modeling, and laboratory experiments, to study primarily fundamental astrophysical plasma processes, and applications in plasma astrophysics, high energy density physics (HEDP), inertial fusion energy (IFE), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and numerical methods for high-performance computing (HPC).

Dan Watson – Professor Watson currently specializes in star and planet formation, studied respectively via spectroscopic observations of the evolution of protostellar systems and protoplanetary disks. He has leadership roles in several large ongoing programs on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). He also leads ongoing observing programs on the Gemini Observatory. Central roles in these programs are the use of integral-field-unit (IFU) imaging spectrometers, particularly the JWST Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), and the Gemini Multi-object Spectrograph on the Gemini South 8-meter telescope (GMOS-S). The evolution of protostars and protoplanetary disks, and the feedback between protostars and their birth environments, are revealed through the mapping of spectral lines from molecules, neutral atoms and ions, and through the mapping of broader absorption features of minerals and complex ices, within these image cubes. Professor Watson interprets and models these observations using a wide variety of fluid-dynamical codes, some community-standard and some of his own and his group’s invention. Currently these activities are dominated by use and creation of magnetohydrodynamic shock codes, in support of JWST, HST and Gemini spectral-line observations.