May 18, 2021

Physics Research Professor Tommy Wiklind was recently awarded a grant from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) for a project entitled Far-infrared Diagnostic Emission Lines: Probing Metallicity Across Cosmic Time. Wiklind is working on this project with co-investigators Skarleth Motiño, a CatholicU doctoral student, and Rafael Eufrasio, who received his Ph.D. from CatholicU in 2015 and now works at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The total sum of the award is $287,000 over a two-year period. 

As part of the project, Wiklind and his team will receive access to data from the SOFIA observatory, NASA’s specially designed Boeing 747SP airplane that contains an infrared telescope. They will be studying the data for findings related to the metallicity, or the abundance of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — elements that can only be formed in the interior of stars. 

As the universe grows older, some of these stars explode, releasing these heavier elements back into the interstellar medium, to be used for the next generation of stars and planets. Wiklind noted that by examining the metallicity in spectra of galaxies throughout the universe at any particular time, researchers can learn about the evolution of star formation across cosmic time.  

“Understanding galaxy evolution is one of the key questions in cosmic evolution,” Motiño said. 

Motiño noted that the SOFIA telescope is the only high-capability telescope currently acquiring and offering data in the infrared part of the spectrum of light. Because of this, the research team will be able to look at nearby star-forming galaxies in a new way. 

“I am looking forward to finding out what kind of environment these galaxies harbor, what is the composition of the dust and gas, and how this is related to the process of new stars being formed in the galaxies,” she said. 

One of the team’s goals is to take observational data from nearby galaxies and compare it with theoretical models of gas emissions in star-forming regions. By comparing these results with very distant young galaxies, they hope to improve scientific understanding of how young galaxies evolve over time. 

“Being part of a SOFIA science project is a great experience,” Motiño said. “For me, it's a learning opportunity, where I can contribute to having a better understanding of the evolution of galaxies, and the evolution of the universe itself.”

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