News

Additional news from the Physics Department can be found at http://lsa.umich.edu/physics/news-events/all-news.html

NSF GRFP Winners


Congratulations to the students from the 2016 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:

  • Lucas Beaufore, Ohio State University (Honorable Mention)
  • Erin Flowers, Columbia University
  • Chloe Lindeman, Haverford College
  • Linsey Rodenbach, Florida State
  • Colin Scheibner, Saint Olaf College
Congratulations to the students from the 2015 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:
  • Haley Bauser, College of William & Mary (Honorable Mention)
  • Brendan Bramman, Hastings College (Honorable Mention)
  • Michael Busch, Arizona State University
  • Joshua Foster, Indiana University (Honorable Mention)
  • Juan Remolina, Missouri University of Science and Technology
Congratulations to the students from the 2014 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:
  • Mark Brown, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Honorable Mention)
  • Scott Nunley, University of Oklahoma
  • Alexa Rakoski, University of Notre Dame
Congratulations to the students from the 2013 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:
  • Melissa Hutcheson, Agnes Scott College
  • Quinn MacPherson, University of Idaho
  • Julia Steinberg, University of Pennsylvania
Congratulations to the students from the 2012 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:
  • Eric Copenhaver, University of Akron (Honorable Mention)
  • Jamie MacLennan, Lawrence Technological University
  • Danielle Norcini, Pennsylvania State University (Honorable Mention)
Congratulations to the students from the 2011 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:
  • Louis Baum, University of Rochester (Honorable Mention)
  • Matthew Hankins, University of Central Arkansas
  • Maya Lewin-Berlin,  Smith College
  • Ann Kathryn Rockwell, University of Alabama Tuscaloosa
  • Meryl Anne Spencer, Grinnell College
Congratulations to the students from the 2010 summer program who were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships:
  • Angela Kay Steinmann, Stetson University (Honorable Mention)
  • Jeremy Bradford, Central Connecticut State University

Undergraduate Researchers Discover New Trans-Neptunian Objects

Ever wish you could spend your summer vacation exploring someplace cool? Undergraduate students Ross Jennings and Zhilu Zhang, both of Carleton College, had the opportunity to explore one of the coolest places in the solar system when they joined the University of Michigan Physics Department'sResearch Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer program to work with Professor David Gerdes on a search for trans-Neptunian minor planets with the Dark Energy Survey. This faraway region of the solar system, more than five billion kilometers from the sun, is populated by thousands of small, icy worlds that take centuries to complete one orbit. These trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) are believed to be leftovers from the primordial cloud that gave birth to the solar system.

“The orbits of some of these objects cannot have arisen from interactions with the major planets in their current configuration,” explains Gerdes. “By studying these trans-Neptunian objects, especially the most distant ones, we can better understand the processes that shaped the solar system.”

To look for TNOs in Dark Energy Survey data, Gerdes and his students examined the 10 fields that DES visits roughly every five days to search for Type Ia supernovae. This search uses difference imaging software to detect transient objects, such as a supernova that brightens rapidly and then fades over the next few months. But it's also the perfect tool to find TNOs, which move from night to night against the background of fixed stars, yet slowly enough that they can stay in the same field of observation for weeks.

Gerdes, Jennings and Zhang started with a list of nearly 100,000 observations of individual transients, and then linked different combinations with trial orbits to see which ones were consistent with a TNO. As more and more points were added to each candidate orbit, the team refined their calculations and made improved predictions for additional observations. By the end of the summer, the team had discovered five new TNOs. The new objects are about 200 km in size--roughly the length of the Grand Canyon.

The properties of the new objects reflect the rich dynamical structure of the trans-Neptunian region: one orbits the sun once for every two orbits of Neptune, and another makes two orbits for every five of Neptune. These orbital resonances protect the objects from disruptive close encounters with the giant planet. third object, 2013 TV158, has a highly elongated, 1200-year orbit that is among the 50 longest orbital periods known.

“So far we’ve examined less than one percent of the area that DES will eventually cover,” says Gerdes. “No other survey has searched for TNOs with this combination of area and depth. We could discover something really unusual.”

In the course of this summer project, the students learned a variety of skills, from Python programming to the mechanics of submitting results for publication.

But the most important thing, says Zhang, was this: "You need to really have a lot of enthusiasm for the research you are involved in, because there is a lot of repetition and tedious work involved in research, and it is not about discovering new things every day. However, the joy you get after you finally find something is so special that I haven't felt anything like that before in my entire life."