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WVU astronomer to study the “extreme universe” with international team

A West Virginia University astronomer is working to locate the origin of fast radio bursts coming from outside the Milky Way Galaxy.

Sarah Spolaor
Sarah Burke-Spolaor

Sarah Burke-Spolaor, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has accepted a distinguished fellowship with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Azrieli Global Scholars Program. She will pursue her research as one of 12 members of the 2018 Global Scholars cohort. Three of these individuals will join CIFAR’s Gravity and the Extreme Universe program.

“It is a great thing to keep my mind flexible in terms of advancing my research in different areas, and it also opens up my network to a lot of critical thinkers in my field,” Burke-Spolaor said. “I think those are some of the most important aspects of this opportunity that will help me advance my scholarship.”

Burke-Spolaor’s research focuses on phenomena that change rapidly in the universe, including fast radio bursts and binary systems of black holes.

Fast radio bursts, which were first discovered by WVU astronomer Duncan Lorimer in 2007, are bright, millisecond flashes of light that occur about every eight seconds.

According to Burke-Spolaor, there are two main theories of where the radio bursts are originating.

“You need something powerful to create the energy that comes out of these bursts,” Burke-Spolaor said. “One idea is the bursts could be originating from a black hole, something at least a few thousand times the mass of the sun. It could instead be coming from an extreme neutron star, which has large amounts of rotational energy. If the crust cracks, the strong magnetic field in the neutron star could produce a huge burst of energy.”

Burke-Spolaor is working with data from the Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico, which provides a high-resolution, continuous video of a segment of the sky.

“The experiment I am working on will hopefully localize future bursts well enough so we can check what types of environments they are living in,” Burke-Spolaor said.

Burke-Spolaor will also be working with the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves to detect gravitational waves that are created by binary black holes.

“We haven’t detected these gravitational waves yet, but we will. Our first detection is imminent,” Burke-Spolaor said.

The two-year fellowship program provides funding and support to help early-career researchers build their network and develop the skills necessary to become the next generation of leaders in their field. Burke-Spolaor will travel to Canada once a year for an annual conference.

“Sarah is part of a group of high-profile astronomers at WVU and a valuable member of our Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology,” said Earl Scime, chair of the department of physics and astronomy. “Her work with fast radio bursts is already garnering international attention. This fellowship connects her with new peer networks and research groups across North America and globally, which will help prepare her for future leadership in the field.”

Image Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC.

Tagged with Physics