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Frostburg State Physics Major Making Exciting Discoveries in Deep Space
02/23/2017

Frostburg State Physics Major Making Exciting Discoveries in Deep Space

This data-rich age of astrophysics is ripe for new discoveries, and one Frostburg State University student has findings that he is ready to submit for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

Jake Lichtenberg of Hagerstown is examining the rotational speed of the spiral arms in NGC 3184, a disk-shaped galaxy in the Ursa Major constellation. He found evidence for a rigidly rotating spiral density wave in the central region of the galaxy.

What does this mean? Currently, astrophysicists have competing theories about the behavior of these spiral arms. Lichtenberg’s results are helping astrophysicists better understand them.

“There are different theories that describe behaviors, and one of them is spiral density wave theory,” Lichtenberg said. “The spiral density wave theory tries to explain the formation of the spiral arms.”

The spiral arms are denser regions of gas, dust and stars. Think of the density wave as a wake created by an ocean wave, said Dr. Jason Speights, assistant professor of physics at FSU, who is advising Lichtenberg’s research.

“One idea in the theory is that the material travels through its wake, and when it does, it triggers things like star formation,” Speights said. “It’s important to understand processes like those that could trigger star formation so we can better understand how galaxies evolve.”

“Jake’s results are interesting because this is the first time we find evidence for spiral density waves using our methods,” Speights said. “Unlike most other methods for studying density waves, we don’t make any assumptions about their existence, so a positive detection is a really big deal that needs to be examined carefully, and that’s what we’ll do in the paper we’re working on.”

Lichtenberg used publicly available data from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array telescope in Socorro, N.M., and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

“We’re in an era of astronomy right now where there are these large surveys and people are putting data online for other astronomers to use,” Speights said.

Lichtenberg, 25, transferred to FSU from Hagerstown Community College with two associate degrees. He has a double major in materials engineering and physics. He plans to graduate in the spring and pursue a master’s degree in physics.

He admits being unsure of his abilities as he was learning MATLAB, the special coding software for his research, but he found he enjoyed it more than he ever anticipated.

“To see how much I learned in the last two years doing the research really put that in perspective,” he said. “It was pretty interesting to see how quickly you can pick up on that.”

Lichtenberg presented his research recently at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Grapevine, Texas, presenting a poster with Speights. To be able to present, their research was peer-reviewed – evaluated by other experts – and Lichtenberg had to have the support of an AAS member, which was Speights. Lichtenberg, along with three other FSU students who presented as a group, were the first from Frostburg to be accepted to present their research at AAS.

The conference helped Lichtenberg improve his research, as he had to field questions from scientists and academics examining his findings.

Lichtenberg’s presentation was well-received, and he even had other universities trying to recruit him for graduate school, Speights said.

“This demonstrates that Frostburg State students are capable of doing real astrophysics research of publication quality and are capable of presenting this type of material to a worldwide audience,” Speights said.

The resources at FSU to do high-level undergraduate research is making Lichtenberg’s experience invaluable.

“I’m getting the experience these top-tier schools are providing from Frostburg State, and I’m getting a one-on-one conversation with an astrophysicist,” Lichtenberg said. “It really helped to guide me to what I want to do.”

For more information on the physics program at FSU, visit bit.ly/FrostburgPhysics.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.

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