Awards Database

Scialog: Collaborative Teams - 2017

Eric  Bellm

Eric Bellm

Astronomy, University of Washington

John  Wisniewski

John Wisniewski

Astronomy, University of Oklahoma

Precovery of Super-flaring G Dwarfs for TESS using PTF and ZTF

In 1859 British amateur astronomers Richard C. Carrington and Richard Hodgson, working independently, were the first to observe a solar flare. It was a very large one, and Carrington was the first to suspect the flare he had witnessed was the cause of some unusual magnetometer readings made by a Scottish physicist the following day. It was subsequently determined that the flare, the largest ever recorded by ground-based magnetometers, also caused intensely bright and widespread auroras.

Today, astrophysicists Eric Bellm, University of Washington, and John Wisniewski, University of Oklahoma, point out, “A Carrington-scale event would cause trillions of dollars of damage to electronic systems worldwide; a super-flare one-hundred times brighter might be catastrophic.”

That’s why recently Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), America’s second-oldest foundation and the first devoted wholly to science, funded Bellm and Wisniewski  through a program called Scialog: Time Domain Astrophysics: Stars and Explosions.

They plan to search for magnetic reconnection events -- the breaking and reconnecting of oppositely directed magnetic field lines in a plasma, a process that is thought to produce solar flares. They will be looking at this process in “super-flaring” stars that are roughly similar in size to our sun. However, super-flaring stars exhibit coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that are several orders of magnitude greater than those recently observed on the sun.  A CME is a huge cloud of matter and electromagnetic radiation that is blown away from the sun during strong, long-duration solar flares and filament eruptions. CMEs can cause equipment-damaging electromagnetic storms on earth as well as producing auroras in the night sky.

“Today’s time domain observatories are determining the physics of these energetic events and addressing the crucial question of whether super-flares could happen on our own sun,” the researchers note. (Time domain astronomy is the study of astronomical objects that change over time scales astronomers can observe.) Bellm and Wisniewski’s work “… will yield the most complete sample of flaring G-dwarfs available, permitting analysis of flare amplitude distributions across spectral types and a wide range of stellar properties, with implications for habitability around Sun-like stars--including our own!”

Bellm and Wisniewski will be conducting their research by analyzing mountains of data accumulating from recent and soon-to-commence major star surveys, including the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) to begin at Palomar Observatory this year.  A “transient” or “transient astronomical event” is an object or phenomenon, including solar flares, that may last from seconds to as long as several years.  ZTF is intended to build on the highly successful Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), which began in 2009. Both ZTF and PTF employ fully-automated, wide-field survey telescopes programmed for a systematic exploration of the night sky.

The two scientists formed their collaboration at an RCSA-sponsored conference, Scialog: Time Domain Astrophysics, held late last year in Tucson, Arizona. There, 50 leading young astronomers and astrophysicists, joined by 10 distinguished senior scientists, engaged in intensive discussions designed to produce creative ideas for innovative research. (Scialog is a combination of “science” and “dialog.”)

“Scialog aims to encourage collaborations among theorists, experimentalists and computational scientists,” said RCSA Program Director Richard Wiener. “We want to catalyze the development of a community in which theory and observation work together to achieve understanding of fundamental phenomena.”

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