Research Highlights

May 5, 2023 | How you can combat climate change with Astronomers for Planet Earth

Thirty-three years ago, Voyager 1 looked back at Earth from the edge of our solar system, about 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from the Sun. It saw, and photographed, a speck of blue floating alone in a sunbeam. The resulting picture of “the Pale Blue Dot” (as Carl Sagan termed it) shows the planet we all live on as a fraction of a pixel in a vast ocean of space. This unprecedented image and the resulting emotional impact of seeing our home planet as a vulnerable world captures the core mission of Astronomers for Planet Earth (A4E).

Mar 24, 2023 | Studying the Inner Depths of Pulsar Wind Nebulae Using IXPE X-Ray Polarization Data

Neutron stars are rapidly rotating dense balls of nuclear material formed from the gravitational collapse of the cores of giant stars. Generally, we cannot see them because they are very small and don’t emit much thermal (heat) radiation. But one special class of neutron stars, called pulsars, have jets of radiation that pass by Earth once per rotation, creating a lighthouse effect whereby they appear to us as pulsating stars (hence the name "pulsar"). Many models have been proposed to explain the nature of pulsar emissions. The most basic one is called the “rotation-powered” model, where particles accelerated along the pulsar's magnetic field lines are dragged and rotated around by the spin, powering the observed synchrotron radiation and exerting a torque on the pulsar that causes it to slow down over time (known as magnetic braking). While this model allows us to approximate some pulsar parameters, such as the strength of the surface magnetic field, details of the emission process are unaccounted for. Other plausible models have been proposed, which we'll be able to better constrain using data from the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), a small-mission NASA satellite…

Feb 16, 2023 | Developing Astrophysical “Apps” for LSST

The distance from Palo Alto to San Francisco might seem obvious when you’re looking for directions on Google Maps, but for the deep-field images of the Universe captured by enormous telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), two points of light can appear close together when they’re actually separated by billions of lightyears. KIPAC scientist, Eli Rykoff, toes the line between astrophysics and software engineering to develop algorithms that can accurately determine the distance between Earth and a far-away galaxy.

Jan 13, 2023 | Aliens: Could Be Out There, But Don’t Trust the Clickbait

People have wondered whether or not there are other beings and minds beyond the Earth at least since the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus in the third century BC. It was an active topic of theological debate through the Renaissance, and eventually imagining aliens, their worlds, and their possible visits to us became a major part of popular culture in the 20th century. Cultural takes on alien life and UFOs have ranged from the more thoughtful and philosophical to the absurdity of gray beings conspiring with international government officials. Recent declassified images and videos of seemingly strange shapes darting across the sky may have caused a media storm, but the real story that needs to be told is that we finally know something about the likelihood of intelligent life in the Universe.

Nov 25, 2022 | IXPE helps solve black hole jet mystery

Some of the brightest objects in the sky are called blazars. They consist of a supermassive black hole feeding off material swirling around it in a disk, which can create two powerful jets perpendicular to the disk on each side. A blazar is especially bright because one of its powerful jets of high-speed particles points straight at Earth. For decades, scientists have wondered: How do particles in these jets get accelerated to such high energies?

Oct 30, 2022 | The origin of life’s molecular asymmetry: An astrobiology perspective

Biopolymers (large molecules operating in living systems, such as DNA or proteins) possess a unique architecture: the arrangement of their atoms in space has the property of specific chirality (or handedness; the word “chiral” comes from Greek for “hands”). How this happened is unknown and solving it is central to understanding the origin of life because the property of homochirality—where all biomolecules of a certain type have the same chirality—allows the biopolymers to adopt stable helical structures. As a result, their helices spiral in only one direction, and this direction is the same for all living organisms.

Sep 23, 2022 | Searching for hints of dark matter on the smallest energy scales

Dark matter’s stubborn resistance to discovery has forced us to reevaluate what it may look like. If it is much lighter than we’ve assumed, there must be more of it around to make up the total mass required to hold galaxies together. Our challenge: the signals these lighter particles would leave in terrestrial detectors are smaller than any we’ve ever set out to measure. To answer that challenge, DM physicists are constructing the coldest, quietest, most sensitive particle detectors ever made.

Jul 29, 2022 | The LSST Camera is ‘an experiment in an experiment'

For more than a decade, scientists and engineers from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) have been leading the development of the world’s largest digital camera for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) Simonyi Survey Telescope. They’ve broken Guinness World Records for highest resolution digital camera and largest lens, but the heart of the camera—a table-sized focal plane made up of nearly two hundred charge-coupled devices (CCDs)—has been a scientific study in its own right, filling thousands of research papers and countless PhD dissertations. 

Jul 27, 2022 | NASA’s Fermi hunts for long gravitational waves using pulsars

Our Universe is believed to be filled with a chaotic sea of low-frequency gravitational waves, perturbations in space-time caused by orbiting pairs of supermassive black holes at the centers of merging galaxies. These waves can be light-years long and astronomers have been chasing them for decades using large radio telescopes around the globe. Now a powerful new tool—one with a long association to KIPAC—has been developed, and the hunt has moved to space using gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light.

Jun 28, 2022 | LSST Camera’s Unintentional World Records

In an unassuming tan building, past windswept hills and equipment from the now-defunct B-Factory particle accelerator, scientists and engineers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) have nearly finished building the world’s largest digital camera for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). Construction began in 2015 and since then, the LSST camera team set a Guinness World Record for the camera’s focal plane, a table-sized array of 189 sensors working in concert to produce the highest resolution digital image ever made: 3,200 megapixels. That’s over 1500 times the resolution of a high-definition television. The team didn’t plan on breaking any world records, but to build a camera that can take thousands of images every night—each one over three billion pixels in size—they sort of had to.

Jun 16, 2022 | Exploring the Cosmos while Preserving Spaceship Earth

Extracting information from the data gathered by large cosmological surveys requires sophisticated theory modeling that combines physical models of our Universe, astrophysical models of galaxies, and telescope and survey-specific models of measurement uncertainties. The theory models involved are now quite sophisticated and typically have thirty to fifty parameters, making it hard to find plausible sets of parameters that describe the observational data. Therefore, even with the most advanced algorithms and software, analyses of modern cosmological datasets are costly, not only in the time required for computers to finish an analysis, but in energy needed to run the computers.

May 31, 2022 | "Studying the physics of astrophysics": Steve Kahn looks back at the founding of KIPAC

Celebrated physicist and Rubin Observatory project scientist Steve Kahn has crisscrossed the country multiple times during his academic career—from a PhD at University of California Berkeley to Columbia University and back west to Stanford—but his biggest leap was shifting from a decades-long career in X-ray astronomy to building the world’s largest digital camera for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). Now he's making another big leap to Dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.