Physics Majors Help Explore Frontiers of Space

Roya Moussapour ’17 is helping build an advanced detector of terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. Davis Unruh ’16 is working on a new telescope that will be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The two physics majors from Bowdoin are interning with NASA this summer. Moussapour is at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Unruh is in Maryland at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.Their internships are funded by the Maine Space Grant Consortium.

Davis Unruh

davisunruhThe Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will, when it is launched in 2020, have a field of view that will allow scientists to look for phenomena such as planets beyond our solar system, dark energy, and star and planet formation. “One of the overall goals of the telescope is understanding the origin and evolution of the universe,” Unruh said, adding, “Super cool!”

Unruh is helping develop WFIRST’s detectors — tiny, high-resolution components that pick up infrared light. “They are using infrared because it allows them to see things they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, especially when they’re looking at heat and energy forms,” Unruh explained. For example, the telescope’s detectors will be able to discern a dark object that emits heat trails. The infrared light will be millions, perhaps billions of years old.

Unruh is spending his days “doing a lot of data analyzing and algorithm design to process the images we take off the detector,” he said. The data that comes in from the WFIRST will be in numeric form, which can be converted to images.

One of the best parts of his summer, according to Unruh, has been getting the chance to work on a project that is still unknown to most of the public. “When it comes out, it’ll be very exciting,” he noted. “And I get to have sneak peeks.”

Roya Moussapour

roya_moussapour Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes were first detected in 1991 in the Earth’s atmosphere, and even though they are common — possibly there are as many bursts as 1,100 a day — scientists know very little about them. It is thought that the flashes originate during thunder and lightning storms when atoms collide and release high-energy particles. “People know they exist and that’s about it,” Moussapour said.

Moussapour is testing a new silicon photomultiplier technology that, if successful, can be launched on a satellite in two years to detect more terrestrial gamma-ray flashes and provide information about them. “My day-to-day work involves testing components to see if they work, how they function and what voltages they should be run at,” she said.

The detector’s advantages are that it is lighter and requires less energy than standard models. “The silicon photo multiplier requires 30 volts to run compared to 1500 volts required for more standard vacuum photomultiplier tubes,” Moussapour said. “It’s durable, super small and doesn’t weigh very much.” That makes a big difference when it costs NASA $10,000 to put a pound of equipment into orbit around the earth. “So whenever possible, it’s better to put up lighter gadgets,” she explained.

Besides getting hands-on experience and having the opportunity to study in depth a specific area of physics, Moussapour said she is also learning about a new part of the country for her and how a government research center works. She grew up in New York City. “Living in the deep South, on a large university campus in Huntsville, and working in a government-sponsored research facility have exposed me  to new experiences and perspectives,” she said.