In a Galaxy Far Far Away

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News Article

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College of Arts & Sciences


Working at a cosmological scale—“huge” doesn’t begin to cover it—when University of North Dakota physics major Haylee Archer peers deep into the universe.

Archer, from Finley N.D., is part of a UND team that recently searched for distant dwarf galaxies using the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. Booking time on that scientific instrument and any other big telescope is seriously competitive.

The four-student team — Archer; Gregory Foote, Los Angeles; Madina Sultanova, St. Cloud, Minn.; and Sandanuwan Kalawila, from Sri Lanka — is working with UND’s Wayne Barkhouse, associate professor in the Department of Physics & Astrophysics, part of the UND College of Arts & Sciences.

Barkhouse, originally from one of Canada’s Maritime provinces, studies galaxy clusters, extragalactic globular clusters and is an associate member of the international Dark Energy Survey. He’s also a member of the Large Scale Structure LSST Science Collaboration.

Like Barkhouse, who enjoyed stargazing in his home region because there wasn’t much light pollution, Archer says living on a farm in rural North Dakota encouraged her love of the night sky.

“So I’ve wanted to study space since I was very young,” said Archer. “I want to know as much as I can about everything related to the stars and to the universe, which is why I’m majoring in physics, with an emphasis on astrophysics.”

Focus on details

Archer, who expects to graduate in May 2017, got the astrophysics bug early when she came to UND.

“I took a course in introductory astronomy from Dr. Barkhouse when I was a freshman,” she said. “I reached out to him when I was in his course and I’ve been working with Dr. Barkhouse since then. I’ve been researching galaxies, especially dwarf galaxies, which is among Dr. Barkhouse’s interests. When he applied for time at the Kitt Peak National Observatory for his dwarf galaxy research project, he asked if I would be interested in working on the team.”

Barkhouse says he occasionally runs into students such as Archer, who’re willing to tackle the exceptionally challenging work of becoming scientists.

“I recognized that Haylee was a serious student, and she has proven able to handle complex research, including the data gathering and analysis, both of which require a discipline focus on details,” says Barkhouse.

Archer aims to build a career in academic research — she plans to go on to a Ph.D. program in astrophysics.

Logging light years

So what is this project all about?

“This research has to do with the large-scale structure of the universe and how galaxies formed,” says Barkhouse. “According to the best estimates of astronomers, there are at least 100 billion galaxies — maybe as many as 200 billion — in the observable universe. And to put that into perspective, there are billions of stars in each of these galaxies.”

“Observable” is a relative term, according to Barkhouse.

“We can only see a minute part of the universe at any one time — and even then, we’re working at scales that dwarf human understanding,” Barkhouse said. “For example, the dwarf galaxies that I sent my student team to Kitt Peak to observe contain ‘only’ millions of stars, while galaxies such as our own milky way contain many billions.”

And, he points out, the mega-distances in astronomy, mostly measured in light years, are tough to comprehend — who’s counting after a million miles (one light year, for example, is the distance covered by a beam of light in one year, or about 5.8 trillion miles, or the equivalent of about 63,000 trips to our Sun and back).

“Galaxies are the building blocks of the universe,” Barkhouse said. “Our work is part of an ongoing quest by scientists worldwide to figure out how the universe evolved from an earlier state.”

“So what we’re doing with our work here is to better grasp how star formation occurs, particularly in the context of dwarf galaxies,” Barkhouse said. “It’s an unsolved problem, which makes it an intriguing subject for research. We use the observations that we collect and the analyses that we perform and put that information into a computer simulation — we test the model by seeing if a dwarf galaxy we observe, pushed ahead by the model billions of years, matches what we see around us.”