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Northern Arizona University working to understand even more about space

Northern Arizona University working to understand even more about space

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Northern Arizona University

If you’ve ever wondered about the infinite mysteries of the universe, rest assured that you are not alone. Many people have dedicated their lives and careers to try and figure out answers to some of the most complex questions in history pertaining to both the science and philosophical aspects of our place in the universe and that which surrounds us.

Some of these dedicated scientists do work here in Flagstaff, and conduct research on a variety of astronomical topics through Northern Arizona University. Among these dedicated scientists is the Associate Department Chair of the Astronomy and Planetary Science department, Dr. Mark Salvatore.

Salvatore has a wide range of projects that currently include “Mars rover studies, Antarctic field work, and searching for distant planets in the outermost part of our Solar System,” he said. Through work done in pursuit of research, scholars are able to not only conduct experiments, studies, and data collection, but also personally do field work around the world in addition to being able to help further along our existing knowledge on a multitude of topics.

A good portion of his field work has been completed in locations that share similarities in environment when compared to that of other planets, such as Antarctica, which shares similarities with the cold and dry environment of Mars. Much of the research done in the Transantarctic Mountains has helped provide a better understanding of the influence of cold and dry conditions on rock weathering.

Research projects like these always start off as an idea, and are later proposed to organizations like NASA or the National Science Foundation for funding. Once proposed, the project undergoes peer review to determine whether or not it will be funded. Though projects are headed by scientists specializing in the field being researched, participation is open to science enthusiasts overall. Salvatore clarifies that “any undergrad or grad student that is interested” is able to join in.

Though opportunities vary depending on what current projects are being worked on, Salvatore encourages students at NAU to reach out to faculty and staff in regards to participating in any current research projects.

One of these projects in the Astronomy and Planetary Science department, is the POKEMON survey, which is being led by Ph.D. candidate Catherine Clark, and her advisor Dr. Gerard Van Belle. Not to be mistaken with the popular company founded by Nintendo, the POKEMON survey stands for “Pervasive Overview of Kompanions of Every M-Dwarf in Our Neighborhood.” The focus of the project is primarily around M-dwarfs, which are the smallest, coldest, and most common star in our galaxy.

Clark describes the project as, “Our survey has observed every nearby M-dwarf using a high-resolution imaging technique called speckle interferometry to try to find previously undetected stellar companions to these stars. Unresolved companions can lead to false positives for exoplanet detection and erroneous planetary properties. Furthermore, by understanding the rate at which M-dwarfs reside within multi-star systems, also known as the multiplicity rate, we will have a better grasp of how these stars form and evolve over time.”

Clark began her work through the APS department in 2017, when she was admitted to the PhD program as a graduate research assistant to work with Dr. Van Belle. Over the last three years her research has grown and evolved into what it is today, with the goal of better understanding M-dwarfs.

“As M-dwarfs are the most common type of star in our galaxy, it’s imperative that we understand their formation and evolution," Clark said. "Furthermore, as M-dwarfs are currently the best place to find exoplanets, and since unresolved companions can significantly affect exoplanet detection and characterization, it is necessary to measure M-dwarf multiplicity.

"As they say, 'Know thy star, know thy planet.’ By utilizing high-resolution imaging techniques such as speckle and long-baseline interferometry, we are able to 'know our stars' on the highest spatial scales.”

There are currently and typically multiple research projects in the works at the Astronomy and Planetary Science Department in Northern Arizona University. Information on these projects and general department information can be found on the NAU school website under the Astronomy and Planetary Department page.

With the dedication of many scientific experts and their steadfast work, answers to universal mysteries about stars, planets, and other celestial topics could be right around the corner.

Stephanie Martinez is the NASA Space Grant intern for 2020-21.

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