University of Vermont

Society of Physics Students

Astronomy at UVM SPS

Astronomy, perhaps one of the most beautiful sub-fields of physics, is concerned with the study of celestial bodies, ranging from the planets and stars to galaxies and nebulae. Dating back to ancient priests who studied the night sky to try and learn more about the divine, astronomy is perhaps one of the oldest of the sciences. Indeed, many of the ancient megaliths that dot world, such as Stonehenge, are believed to have been used for astronomical measurements. Such a love of the universe above and around us is continued at universities around the world, who offer many courses specially designed to further this prehistoric science.

Below, you will find some astronomical research topics which SPS members are currently or have been engaged in.


Theory of Pulsar Radio-frequency Emission

  • Adviser: Prof. Joanna Rankin
  • Current Researchers: Casey Lynn Brinkman-Traverse
  • Past Researchers: Daniel Orfeo

  • When a star grows old, it has three fates. The majority of stars (around 97%) turn into white dwarfs, which will then age into black dwarfs--a super dense, cool corpse of a once radiant stellar body. If the star is too massive, it will supernova, and collapse into a black hole--a celestial body so dense not even light can escape from it. However, there remains a third fate--this is that of a neutron star, which is the remnants of a super massive star that just wasn't massive enough to collapse into a black hole. Of particular interest to Prof. Joanna Rankin are rotating neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation from their poles. These stars are called pulsars, and are extremely important for astronomical and astrophysical research.

    First postulated to be a sign of extraterrestrial life, pulsars are discovered on November 28, 1967, by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish. The discovery of pulsars was extraordinary, due to the fact that the pulsars' pulses (which range from a few milliseconds to a few seconds) are, at times, periodic to extreme precision--a precision that, in some cases, rivaled that of atomic clocks. Such pulsars have been used as interstellar maps aboard the Voyager probes, the building of super-precise clocks, and as probes of the interstellar medium. Recently, they have even been used to detect gravitational waves propagating through space.

    At UVM, Dr. Rankin's research specializes in a major issue of pulsar physics--that is, figuring out emission mechanisms in pulsars. By utilizing techniques of radio astronomy, she attempts to formulate an empirical theory of pulsar emission. The Rankin group has a long, strong history of SPS members engaged in research. Recently, ex-SPS secretary Daniel Orfeo conducted research in periodicities in nulling (i.e., when pulsars DON'T pulse), and current SPS treasurer Casey Lynn Brinkman-Traverse is looking at polarization between the two main modes of pulsar B0329+54 with respect to frequency and pulse intensity. To learn more about Casey's research, click here to go to her research profile. To learn more about Dr. Rankin's research, click here to go to her webpage.



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  • Last modified August 12 2014 10:01 PM