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National Science Foundation awards KU Student-Research Grant for Exoplanet Discovery

By Kutztown University, Bryan Salvadore

May 15, 2020

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Kutztown University nearly $244,000 for a student-research grant. The grant will allow undergraduate students the opportunity to be paid research assistants at KU and travel abroad to take their research work to the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Australia. Beginning in 2021, four undergraduate students will be selected every year for the next three years to participate in the grant program.

While the concept of exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars) is more than 2,000 years old, the science of discovering them is still in its early stages. Kutztown University, along with other universities and institutions across the globe, have been instrumental in progressing the field of study. KU’s on-campus, Carlson R. Chambliss Astronomical Observatory, serves as a follow-up observing facility for NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satelitte (TESS). Professor of astronomy and physics at KU, Dr. Phillip Reed, is the primary investigator for the project and a member of the TESS Follow-up Observing Program (TFOP) working group.

TESS is a NASA program tasked with discovering and measuring the masses of 50 transiting small planets. The program coincidentally leads to the discovery of thousands of additional exoplanets orbiting other bright stars. The KU observatory is capable of detecting and measuring the sizes of large Jupiter-like exoplanets, already having co-discovered more than 10 new planets, including the discovery and characterization of KELT-23Ab by 2020 KU graduate, Daniel Johns. The observatory also contributes to exoplanet discoveries by clearing smaller TESS planet candidates of false-positive signals.

KU has partnered with USQ, who are also working group members of TFOP. Students selected will be researching both at KU in the Carlson R. Chambliss Astronomical Observatory as well as USQ’s world-class MINERVA-Australis observatory. The MINERVA-Australis facility is in a dark-sky location and provides TESS with some of the most accurate measurements of the masses of small planets. The experience working with high-level professional researchers and with advanced tools and locations around the world lends an immeasurable advantage to those students hoping to pursue doctorate programs. Students will receive experience and training on two sides of the planet while contributing to the discovery of new planets.

“This is an amazing research opportunity for our students, to help TESS hunt for exoplanets with our on-campus observatory and to then spend the summer in Australia working with cutting-edge astronomical instrumentation,” Reed said. “I am extremely grateful for Dr. Rob Wittenmyer’s engagement with our students at USQ/MINERVA-Australis.”

The first round of undergraduates to be selected for this experience are already enrolled at KU, but future opportunities remain open for high school juniors and seniors who plan to enroll at KU after graduation. This project seeks to increase the participation of students underrepresented in physics and astronomy, including women, first-generation university students and students of color. The program is designed to train students as scientific researchers and engage them in work that progresses the study of exoplanets and assists the TESS mission in achieving its goals. These activities will help KU’s physics program prepare graduates who are both globally-engaged and more rigorously prepared for advanced study, research and employment in physics and space-related industries.

To learn more about this project, contact Dr. Reed at [email protected].

For more information on the KU on-campus observatory or to watch for future community events in conjunction with the KU planetarium, you can visit the observatory website, planetarium website or the planetarium Facebook page.

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