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N.C. Space Grant Consortium Award helps students and faculty study mysteries of space

physics_t.jpgBOONE—Appalachian State University has received $98,000 from the N.C. Space Grant Consortium. This is the second year that faculty-student research proposals from Appalachian’s Department of Physics and Astronomy have received funding from this NASA-sponsored program.

Tony Calamai, chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, says the funding will support undergraduate and graduate student research stipends, physical science education outreach and travel stipends to help students attend meetings of professional organizations.

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Randy Maples, left, and Sam Abee work on a physics project in the ion trap lab in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Appalachian State University. The senior physics majors received student research assistantship stipends from the N.C. Space Grant Consortium to conduct their work. Their research involves measuring properties of ions important to the chemistry of the atmosphere. Consortium funding also supports faculty research, physical science education outreach and travel stipends to help students attend meetings of professional organizations. (Photo courtesy of Eric Peterson)

The undergraduate and graduate research assistantships yield benefits for both the students and the professors with whom they work, Calamai said. The students typically continue their summer research work during the academic year through independent study or for research credits

“With the teaching load here, it is really critical that professors make good progress on their research during the summer and winter break and try to keep up that progress while they are teaching during the fall and spring semester,” Calamai explained. “The faculty member benefits by having a trained research assistant during the academic year and the students get great faculty mentorship and research experience that opens the door to graduate programs and professional careers.”

The funding also will support research projects proposed by assistant professors Jon Saken and Adrian Daw.

Saken received $20,000 from the N.C. Space Grant Consortium to purchase a specialized digital camera that will be installed on the 32-inch telescope at the university’s Dark Sky Observatory.

Saken and his student research assistants will use the equipment to study magnetic interactions between close orbiting exoplanets and their host stars. Exoplanets, also known as extrasolar planets, are planets that orbit a star outside our solar system. What they learn may lead to a better understanding of our own solar system.

Saken and Professor Richard Gray will also use the equipment to study young stars that are similar to the sun. “The sun is 4.6 billion years old, but we don’t know what it was like when it was young,” Saken said. “Learning about the younger stars will help us understand what the sun was like at the time the Earth was being formed.”

Daw received $25,000 from the Space Grant to build an optical device to use when studying the sun’s corona during a solar eclipse.

“There isn’t any manufactured equipment available for this particular application,” Daw said. The grant funds will be used to purchase special filters and lenses that will be mounted on a CCD detector, allowing Daw and student research assistants to record near-infrared images of the sun’s outer corona.

“A total solar eclipse provides a rare opportunity when scattered light from the solar disk is blocked by the moon,” he said. “You can’t recreate it. You have to wait for nature to take its course.”

Such research will help other scientists better understand the corona’s magnetic fields, Daw explained. “These magnetic fields in the solar corona affect the chemistry of our atmosphere, can disrupt communications and electrical power distribution and can represent a serious hazard to spacecraft.”

Daw plans to use the equipment to capture data from along the Chinese-Mongolian border in 2008 during the next total solar eclipse.

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