Friday, November 14, 2014

URSP Student Ryan Pfeifle Uses Microlensing

I entered the astrophysics field of microlensing as an intern at Goddard Space Flight Center over the summer; for all intents and purposes, I brought my work back with me for the fall semester. It hit me on the 10th of July – given our equipment at the GMU observatory, we should be able to detect microlensing events! At the beginning I was optimistic but hesitant about the prospects of the research, but the more I read into other observatory locations and equipment, the more confident I grew about the chances of successfully detecting these magnification events. The exoplanet research group here at Mason discovered only the other year that the observatory was capable of conducting research on transit-timing but no one had yet looked into microlensing, so my mentor and I changed our project from moon composition mapping to microlensing. Just the question of whether or not we really could see these events was exciting enough for us to go forward with the research.

The project has been a huge success so far, and I would like to see microlensing research continue at Mason. It’s my hope that our data will prove our location is conducive for these observations in the northern hemisphere, and thus be added as an observatory location for one of several international follow-up microlensing detection surveys. Not only that but I would like to get other universities in Virginia involved to create a student research network between the physics departments across the state.

Observations are conducted as often as possible, weather permitting; such is the nature of ground-based astrophysics research. In order to maximize the number of targets we point to each night, we prioritize targets by elevation in the sky – observing the targets lowest in the sky first and working up to the targets at higher elevations – and we have to move quickly when observing because of the time it takes to point the telescope and observatory dome in the direction of the designated target event. Outside of the observatory I spend most of my time (currently) triangulating the position of these events within our images, which sounds much easier than the actual process. Soon, however, the observations from our location will be out of our view and we’ll move on to data processing in order to finalize our results.

This past week in particular was rather exciting; we did not expect to see a lot of these events at our latitude – they are rare in general – but after reviewing two different observatory lists of hundreds of these events, our list of targets rose from eight to nineteen, and we were just alerted of several more!