NSF grant to fund study of galactic interactions, mergers

Dr. Beverly Smith

JOHNSON CITY (Sept. 27, 2013) – East Tennessee State University has been awarded a grant of $133,715 from the National Science Foundation to study gravitational interactions and mergers between galaxies. 

The lead investigator on this project is Dr. Beverly Smith, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences.  This work will be done in collaboration with Dr. Curtis Struck from Iowa State University.

“A galaxy is a gigantic collection of stars and interstellar gas tens of thousands of light years in extent, and can contain hundreds of millions of stars,” Smith said.  “Galaxies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including flattened disk galaxies like our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

“Collisions and mergers between galaxies,” she continued, “cause dramatic changes to the structure of the galaxies.  The tremendous gravitational forces involved when galaxies approach each other stretch and distort their disks, producing extremely long tails extending millions of light years in to intergalactic space.  Close encounters between galaxies can cause interstellar gas clouds to gravitationally contract, collapsing under their own weight to produce stars.  Collisions between galaxies can trigger the formation of vast numbers of new stars over a very short period of time.”

In her research, Smith studies such collisions using data from a variety of telescopes, including infrared images from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, optical images from ground-based telescopes and the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, X-ray data from the NASA Chandra telescope, and ultraviolet images from the NASA Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) satellite.

Smith regularly teaches introductory astronomy courses at ETSU, as well as upper-level physics and astronomy courses.  She also supervises undergraduate physics majors in research projects, including Honors theses.

This NSF grant will provide funds to employ undergraduate students over the summer and during the school year as research assistants, with the students presenting their results at local and regional conferences.

Former ETSU students who have worked on research projects with Smith as undergraduates include Amanda Moffett from Elizabethton, who will receive her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this fall; Olivia Miller, who started graduate school in physics at Harvard University this fall; Ryen Lapham, currently a graduate student in astronomy at New Mexico Tech; David Christopher Carver, who obtained an M.D. degree from ETSU’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine in May and is now a resident physician in Memphis; Rachel Baker Horn, a physical science teacher at Daniel Boone High School in Gray; and Jessica Webb Miller, now a physics teacher at Greeneville High School.