Summer Research Projects for Undergraduates
 /  Summer Research Projects for Undergraduates
Summer Research Projects 2016

Browse through the tabs below to read descriptions of undergaduate internship projects offered in 2016.

  • Investigation of Stellar Clusters
    Host Institution: National Central University, Taiwan
    Mentor: Dr. Wen-Ping Chen

    Stars are known to form in clustered environments out of molecular clouds. Those surviving the cloud dispersal and remaining gravitational bound are seen as star clusters, with tens to thousands of member stars. The system is dynamically relaxed after about 100 stellar encounters of mutual gravitational influence. As the result, more massive stars tend to 'sink' to the central part of a cluster, whereas lower-mass members gain speed and occupy a larger volume in space. One of the consequences of this 'mass segregation' process is the lowest-mass members being most vulnerable to be ejected out of the system. Such an evaporation process leads to a continuing decrease of the total mass, hence the gravitational binding energy, of the cluster. Any external disturbance, such as the tidal force from nearby giant molecular clouds or star clusters, Galactic disk crossing, or shear from Galactic differential rotation, only exacerbates to disintegrate the cluster. Recently dissolved systems in the Solar neighborhood would be recognized as 'moving groups' as the then-members still share systemic kinematics and distances. Eventually the escaped stars become the disk field population.

    Our group is working on charting out unknown star clusters (to find those beyond 2 kpc to get a more complete sample), on characterization of nearby systems (to identify a secure member list to better determine the distances and ages, mass segregation, and to delineate any tidal structure of the dissolution process) , and on finding substellar members in nearby star clusters. A summer student is expected to learn/use the computational skills to analyze photometric and astrometric data to quantify the cluster membership, and to involve in the science of star clusters, and in turn to use clusters as a tool to diagnose the formation and evolution of the Galactic disk.

  • Software Development for Lulin One-meter Telescope
    Host Institution: National Central University, Taiwan
    Mentor: Dr. Chow-Choong Ngeow

    The Lulin One-meter Telescope (LOT), located at central part of Taiwan, is owned and operated by the Graduate Institution of Astronomy at the National Central University (IANCU). IANCU has joined the GROWTH network to use LOT for follow-up observations of fast transients and tracks near Earth asteroids (NEA) discovered from the iPTF and ZTF surveys. Currently, LOT is operated under classical mode, i.e. users and telescope operators will be on-site to manually operate LOT for observations. This puts a barrier on LOT within the GROWTH network to quickly perform the necessary follow-up observations within 24 hours. Therefore, automation of LOT is required to integrate this telescope into the GROWTH network. The main goal of this project is to develop an (web-based) interface for LOT to received targets list from perspective users and/or the GROWTH network prior to nightly observations, such that LOT can automatically carry out the observations based on a pre-defined targets list. The perspective student will learn about software development applicable to automation of the telescopes. We will also test various configurations on such automation on LOT. Trip(s) to the Lulin Observatory, where the LOT is located, will also be arranged during the stay at IANCU.

  • Exploring a novel discovery technique
    Host Institution: Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel
    Mentor: Dr. Eran Ofek

    Image subtraction stand at the base of time domain astronomy. We have recently developed an optimal image subtraction method (Zackay, Ofek, & Gal-Yam 2016) which has several advantages over existing techniques. We invite a summer student to utilize this method on PTF data on one of the following items:

    • (1) Apply image subtraction to the PTF H alpha survey in order to search for faint nebulosity and characterize the star formation rate within the nearby Universe.
    • (2) Search for periodic variable stars (e.g., RR Lyr stars) below the nominal survey detection limit, using optimal coaddition of subtraction images
    • (3) Search for faint novae in the halo of M81 using coaddition of subtraction images

  • Astronomical image and data analysis
    Host Institution: IUCAA, India & Pomona College, USA
    Mentor: Dr. Varun Bhalerao & Prof. Bryan Penprase

    Working with newly discovered sources from both PTF and the new Indian AstroSAT satellite, the summer research intern would compile coordinates, magnitudes and other information and help coordinate additional observations to characterise the sources. These additional observations would make use of the Yale SMARTS telescopes in Chile for optical imaging, infrared imaging, and optical spectroscopy. The work would include photometric data analysis and spectroscopic data analysis, and would involve working at IUCAA in Pune India, a renowned institute for astrophysical research.

  • General Liverpool Telescope Nova Eruption
    Host Institution: Liverpool John Moores University, UK
    Mentor: Matt Darnley & Paolo Mazalli

    The Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores university owns and operates the fully robotic, 2-metre Liverpool Telescope (LT) located on La Palma in the Canary Islands. The initial science case for LT was to study the eruptions of galactic and extragalactic nova eruptions, and since first-light in 2004 there have been on-going nova monitoring programmes, both photometric and spectroscopic on the telescope. As almost all nova eruptions are unpredictable, and a project involving work on an on-going nova eruption depends on a suitable system being discovered. This internship opportunity will involve managing the LT observations to follow-up any erupting nova, including photometric monitoring (light curves), spectroscopic observations (confirmation/classification and evolution), polarimetric observations (particularly if the nova forms dust). The techniques required to study novae observationally are almost identical to those employed when observing extragalactic supernovae. As an extension, this project may also be able to follow-up alerts released by the Palomar Transient Factory located in California, USA.

  • The variable and transient population of the Andromeda galaxy
    Host Institution: Liverpool John Moores University, UK
    Mentor: Matt Darnley & Paolo Mazalli

    The POINT-AGAPE project observed the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) for four seasons with almost nightly cadence in three colours from 1999-2003. While these data have been used to study, for example novae and Cepheids, the data still holds a large array of untapped science. The fourth season of POINT-AGAPE data, for example, has never been analysed and a number of new transient/variable sources are certain to be found. This summer internship project will involve getting to grips with a substantial dataset, performing data analysis (photometry), and developing algorithms to perform initial object classification.

Summer Research Projects 2017

Click on the project titles below to open a full desciption of the GROWTH summer research projects offered in 2017

  • Optical and X-ray observations of high-energy transients
    Host Institution: Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan
    Mentors: Prof. Nobuyuki Kawai and Dr. Yoichi Yatsu

    At Tokyo Tech, we own and operate a 50 cm MITSuME robotic telescope used for studies of high-energy transient sources such as gamma-ray bursts, black hole binaries, and active galactic nuclei. MITSuME telescope responds to alerts from X-ray/gamma-ray satellites and ground-based survey such as iPTF. We are also affiliated with MAXI, an X-ray all-sky monitor on the International Space Station. MAXI provide alerts when it discovers new X-ray transient sources. It also monitors hundreds of variable X-ray sources.

    A summer student may choose a subject with one of the following emphasis (please indicate when writing your application):

    • (1) Astrophysical study of a high-energy transient source: The student chooses one interesting target (e.g. newly discovered gamma-ray burst or X-ray transient), learns to work on the astronomical images and produce scientific quality light curves from optical and/or X-ray observations.
    • (2) MITSuME observatory software: The student will contribute to improving the robotic telescope. Examples of current tasks include prompt response for external alerts from various survey/monitor programs such as ZTF, and efficient autonomous observation planning using the on-site cloud monitor.
    • (3) Development of future astrophysical instrumentation: The student will participates in a project for a micro-satellite for astronomy to work on one element of various aspects of instrumentation design: scientific requirements, optics, mechanical structure, electronics, software for operation, data handling, etc.

  • Multi-Messenger Astronomy with High-Energy Neutrinos
    Host Institution: Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany
    Mentor: Anna Franckowiak

    High-energy neutrinos trace the most violent processes in the Universe. Due to their elusive nature they can escape extremely dense regions such as stellar cores or black hole accretion disks and can thus carry information that no other messengers can provide. The IceCube neutrino observatory located in the glacial ice at the geographic South Pole is the largest neutrino detector in the world. It is sensitive to high-energy neutrinos with energies above 100 GeV. IceCube discovered extra-galactic high-energy neutrinos for the first time in 2013. The most pressing question in the new field of neutrino astronomy is: Where do those neutrinos come from? Candidates are gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), active galactic nuclei (AGN) and supernovae (SNe).

    The IceCube group at DESY and Humboldt University of Berlin has installed an optical follow-up program, which selects interesting neutrino events in real-time and forwards their direction to optical telescopes aiming for the detection of an optical counterpart of the neutrino source. We are looking for a student to build a visualization tool for incoming neutrino events, which gives an overview of potential source candidates in the vicinity of the neutrino. Given the neutrino direction and error circle, the tool should display cataloged sources within the neutrino error circle and list their properties. Ideally it would include several candidate neutrino source classes: close-by galaxies, which could host a nearby SN, gamma-ray and radio sources. The tool can be tested on archival neutrino events.

  • Identification of the lost mass around Luminous Blue Variables
    Host Institution: California Institute of Technology (Caltech), USA
    Mentor and Co-mentors: Dr. Nadejda Blagorodnova (mentor), Dr. David Cook, Dr. Thomas Kupfer (co-mentors)

    The evolution of very massive stars is shaped by their mass loss. While stellar winds is one of the steady mass loss channels, sporadic violent outbursts, ejecting 10^-5 to 10^-4 solar masses, have a large impact on the interstellar environments. Ring nebulae are observational proofs of the mass loss history around massive stars, revealing the presence of winds of different velocities or the imprint of a past outburst-like ejection of stellar material. The hot central engine provides an ionisation source for this nebulae, revealed by their strong emission in the H alpha narrow band. The luminosity of the nebula, along with spectroscopic measurements can allow us to estimate the mass and the dynamic age of the nebula, permitting us to trace back the major mass loss episodes.

    The goal of this project is to identify ring nebulae around a group of Luminous Blue Variable (LBV) candidates in the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy. The prospective student will analyse the candidates, chosen using colour cuts and historic variability, for the existence of H alpha emission present in the narrow-band imaging iPTF survey. The promising candidates will be spectroscopically confirmed using the observing facilities available to Caltech. The prospective student will learn about observation, data reduction, photometry, light curve analysis and image analysis techniques. The student will be jointly supervised by Blagorodnova, Kupfer and Cook (at Caltech), combining the expertise on stellar evolution and the construction of large catalogues. The student will take advantage of local programs such as summer schools, conferences, and observing runs.

  • Interface Development and Testing for Follow-Up Observations of GROWTH Transients
    Host Institution: National Central University, Taiwan
    Mentor: Dr. Chow-Choong Ngeow

    The Lulin One-meter Telescope (LOT), located in the central part of Taiwan, is owned and operated by the Graduate Institution of Astronomy at the National Central University (IANCU). IANCU has joined the GROWTH network to use LOT for follow-up observations of fast transients and tracking of near-Earth asteroids (NEA) discovered in the iPTF and ZTF surveys. The first part of this project is to develop an (web-based) interface for LOT to received targets list from the GROWTH network prior to nightly observations, such that LOT can automatically carry out the observations based this pre-defined targets list. The prospective student will learn about software development applicable to automation of telescopes. Upon successful completion of the first part of the project, the student will then test the interface and make sure it can receive GROWTH targets and trigger follow-up observations. Finally, the student will be involved in data reduction and analysis of these targets. Trip(s) to the Lulin Observatory, where the LOT is located, will also be arranged during the stay at IANCU.

  • Modeling the atmosphere in the era of big data from extremely wide field-of-view telescopes
    Host Institution: Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany
    Mentor: Dr. Jakob Nordin

    Ground-based astronomical observations are limited by the changing, wavelength-dependent atmospheric absorption. Traditionally, a nightly extinction solution based on observations of a few standard stars is derived to correct for this. This approach relies on assumptions both regarding temporal and chromatic variations. Potential photometric systematic uncertainties due to these are already limiting progress for modern high-precision astronomy. A prime example is the use of Type Ia supernovae to study dark energy and the expansion rate of the Universe, a technique directly relying on the measured transient brightness.

    The currently most discussed method for reducing atmospheric uncertainty is through the use of secondary facilities (e.g. small telescopes) to continuously monitor some region of the sky. These systems thus require additional installation and calibration. Furthermore, it is still not clear whether they can be used to calibrate the full area of rapidly cadenced wide-field surveys as the atmospheric absorption might vary with source direction. An exciting new possibility is to use the large data-streams from these surveys themselves, coupled with the recently released Gaia and PanStarrs catalogs, to directly solve for the wavelength dependent absorption. From the large number of sources in every image it will frequently be possible to select isolated stars of suitable brightness and of a range of different colors. A student working with this project would use modern statistical techniques to ask how well a model for the atmospheric extinction can be constrained. The computational complexity is further increased since the atmospheric model is derived using data from different CCD's, meaning that their individual sensitivities need to be account for, and the telescope+filter+ccd throughput is not exactly known. Finally, the timescale of atmospheric variations are typically longer than individual exposures and models should thus be able to incorporate information from previous and later exposures. If successful, this work can be directly used to create a new Palomar Observatory atmospheric model for the upcoming ZTF survey.

  • Protostellar Abrupt Variability in Optical and Millimeter Wavelengths
    Host Institution: National Central University, Taiwan
    Mentor: Dr. Wen-Ping Chen

    During gravitational collapse, a protostar gathers gas and dust from the surrounding molecular cloud. Part of the material is accreted to grow the central object, while part is thrown out as jets or outflows. The accretion process is not continuous, leading to possible abrupt brightening. The summer student is expected to work with data from the PTF survey as well as other optical/infrared data to study such outburst events. The student will first learn to write codes to extract, plot, and make statistical analysis of the data. He or she will also be involved in submillimeter measurements of protostellar variability.

  • Studying the population of cataclysmic variables in our Galaxy and its implications for Type Ia supernovae
    Host Institutions: Caltech & University of Winsconsin, Milwaukee
    Mentors & Co-mentors: David Kaplan, Angie van Sistine (UWM); Thomas Kupfer, David Cook (Caltech)

    In the Single Degenerate model of Type Ia supernovae, the white dwarf accretes matter from its companion star until it reaches the Chandrasekhar mass limit and explodes violently. In the Double Degenerate model two white dwarfs merge and reach the Chandrasekhar limit which results also in a supernova Ia. This distinction is quite dramatic and has significant implications for the physics, rate, and cosmological utility of Type Ia supernovae. However, while there is more and more evidence that both channels exist, the relative fraction is still unknown.

    One step towards constraining the single degenerate scenario is determining the number of cataclysmic variables (CVs) in the Galaxy. Cataclysmic variables comprise all the close binaries that contain a white dwarf accreting material transferred from a companion, usually a late main-sequence star. A variety of instabilities on different timescales cause dramatic eruptions, which allows CVs to be identified from time-domain surveys, but this is dependent on the outburst rates and properties which significantly affect the types of CVs that are discovered. In a series of papers Skody et al. identified a total of 285 spectroscopically confirmed CVs in the SDSS footprint. However, this selection also is not very uniform, as it relied on only those objects within SDSS that had spectroscopic data.

    Instead, we propose to determine the local CV population in a more uniform manner using the wealth of the H-alpha data provided by the iPTF survey. Our goal is to determine the number density of CVs within the SDSS footprint and to examine how the properties of the population vary (as a function of position, color, etc). Just as Szkody et al. used blue colors plus the presence of H-alpha emission lines in SDSS spectra for selection, we will use blue colors along with H-alpha emission present in the narrow-band imaging iPTF survey to select promising candidates. Our initial color selections will be drawn from the Szkody et al. sample and used for training and classification. These will be verified with photometric (for lightcurves and hence periods) and spectroscopy (radial velocities) follow-up observations. Eventually this can be extended to the whole Pan-Starrs footprint (the data should be released by winter 2016) to significantly increase the sample.

    The student will be jointly supervised by Kaplan and van Sistine (at UWM) and Kupfer and Cook (at Caltech), combining expertise in Galactic astronomy (Kaplan, Kupfer) with construction of the H-alpha survey and catalog (van Sistine, Cook). The student will split his/her time between the two institutions to take advantage of local programs such as summer schools, conferences, and observing runs.

  • The Analysis of Asteroid Light Curves
    Host Institution: National Central University, Taiwan
    Mentor:Dr. Chan-Kao Chang

    The NCU Solar System Team used data from the iPTF survey to collect numerous asteroid light curves and derive their rotation periods. We looked for super-fast-rotators (SFR, P less than 2 hr), and derived their spin-rate distribution, which can be used to better understand the mechanisms of altering asteroid spin status (i.e., mutual collision and the YROP effect). We have discovered ~25 SFR candidates and will use The Lulin One-meter Telescope (LOT) to confirm their super-fast rotation period. The prospective student will learn about observation, data reduction, photometry, and light curve analysis. Trip(s) to LOT are possible depending on whether follow-up observations are necessary for further light curve collections.

  • Developing an Undergraduate Time-Domain Astrophysics Observational Platform
    Host Institution: Caltech/Pomona College, USA
    Mentor: Prof Bryan Penprase

    The GROWTH program has developed a global network for observing transients, typically for rapid response to newly discovered sources, largely using Northern Hemisphere telescopes. The sources observed include a wide mix of transients that include novae, gravitational lenses, gamma ray bursts, and other exotic objects. To maximise the science return from the GROWTH mission, and to enable a wider range of undergraduate students and young scientists to contribute to analysis of GROWTH and other transients, an educational site is needed that can provide overviews of the relevant astrophysical processes, and to help observers plan and conduct new observations of transients. The site would be developed with students, and could incorporate small lectures on important topics of time-domain astronomy, tutorials on data analysis and light-curve generation, and useful notebooks in Python.
    The summer research project will also enable a student to build a working platform for conducting their own time-domain astronomy research. Using a variety of telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, and linking other small telescopes from around the world, the platform would develop scripts for observing, and also provide a facility for uploading datasets and light curves for a global online community of students conducting astronomy research. Access to the Yale SMARTS telescopes at CTIO in Chile and other Chilean telescopes will enable development of a Southern Hemisphere facility capable of rapidly responding to GROWTH alerts. During the summer, the students will work with GROWTH scientists and apply some of the materials for actual observations of newly discovered transients. This work will involve developing a robust pipeline for rapidly reducing data from the 1.3-meter telescope at CTIO, which produces simultaneous infrared and optical images from its ANDICAM camera. This pipeline will be applied to data acquired from observations of variable sources that include supernovae, short fast X-ray transients (SFXTs), and gravitational lensing sources.

Summer Research Projects 2018

Available projects and how to apply will be announced at the end of 2017. Keep checking our website regularly or stay in touch for regular news and updates via Twitter or Facebook.

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GROWTH is funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 1545949. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.