Out of the only 13 available statewide, two North Carolina Space Grants were awarded to UNC Asheville students.
Abigail Grulick and Riley McBride are recipients of these competitive awards that come with an $8,000 scholarship to support their astronomy-related undergraduate research.
NC Space Grant is a state-wide network of higher-education institutions, industries, government entities, educational programs and nonprofit partners that, in partnership with NASA, work collaboratively to promote, develop and support space-related STEM research, education and public outreach throughout the state.
Grulick, alongside faculty mentor Christene Lynch, a university fellow in UNC Asheville’s Physics Department, is working to identify extrasolar planetary systems that have a high likelihood of sustaining liquid water on the surface of the exoplanets, one of the building blocks to hosting life.
“I will model a theoretical set of exoplanets and slowly adjust their atmospheres and star-magnet interactions over time to determine optimal conditions for maintaining liquid water,” Grulick said. “To me, this project exemplifies how interconnected astronomical processes are to atmospheric processes. I really love seeing how the two fields overlap with each other.”
Grulick is a senior majoring in atmospheric science and minoring in astronomy. Lynch said the combination is not typical, but proving to be highly relevant.
“In astronomy, we tend to start with what we know. We know the Earth, and a lot of the atmospheric physics that we use to understand other systems, other planets, all comes from the earth,” Lynch said. “Abby having this background in atmospheric science actually really lends itself to trying to understand how the other stars that are different from our sun would interact with an atmosphere like our Earth or very different from our Earth.”
After modeling theoretical planets to find the ideal conditions for liquid water, the next step will be searching existing planets for similar conditions. Lynch said there are observations of about 5,000 planets to compare their model to. This research is something Grulick said she is excited to continue in graduate school.
“I would really like to continue researching atmospheric development on exoplanets,” Grulick said. “This project will serve as an excellent precursor for my career and help determine if this is the type of research I would like to continue in the future.”
McBride and his faculty advisor, David Wake, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, are studying the correlation between the orbital motion of satellite galaxies and the rotation of the central galaxy that they’re orbiting. They hope to determine if the angular momentum of the dark matter halo hosting these galaxies is being transferred to the central galaxy.
As galaxies form, the larger galaxies can pull nearby galaxies into their orbit as a result of dark matter collapsing under its own gravity. This creates galaxy groups or clusters. Their research hopes to understand better how these galaxies merge.
“It’s telling us something about how that is happening and if angular momentum is getting carried all the way into the center or does it all get disrupted on the way,” Wake said. “If you look at maps of galaxies on the largest scales, you see all this structure. So they’re not just randomly distributed, they follow this almost web-like structure. There’s all these filaments connecting these big clusters together, and so you expect galaxies to be falling along these filaments and that motion to come all the way into the central galaxy.”
McBride, a senior majoring in physics and minoring in astronomy, learned Python programming language to write software that could complete data analysis and create stellar velocity graphs that show the movement of the galaxies and their rotation, an intensive process with some trial and error.
“My favorite part would be getting the stellar velocity graphs working because it was actually a visual indicator of the program I wrote working,” McBride said.
A portion of the grant funding has gone toward purchasing a workstation with a high-powered computer for student research use, which Grulick and McBride will benefit from, as well as other students completing research in the astronomy program, now and in the future.
Both Lynch and Wake underpin the importance of undergraduate research to learning key skills. Undergoing the research process without the stakes of determining a long-term thesis allows the students a trial period to determine their aptitude for it.
“Doing this undergraduate research is crucial for them to understand whether it really is something they like to do and whether it’s something that suits their abilities,” Wake said. “It’s self-directed and it’s frustrating. It takes a long time. Half the time it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be prepared to bang your head against it until you find the solution.”
But, Lynch said, with enough preserverance comes the thrill of discovery.
“I found that if you’re interested in the subject enough, you’ll keep doing it. Trying to maintain that interest and that passion is hard when you get to these stumbling blocks,” Lynch said. “But just remember that there is something that’s going to happen that’s going to be exciting.”