Assistant Professor of Physics Leslie Hebb was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) to support her innovative time domain astrophysics research. The funding is part of a $100,000 grant awarded to Hebb and her two research partners to support their collaborative proposal to build and implement a telescope diffuser that can attain space quality photometric precision from the ground.
In October 2015, Hebb attended a Scialog® conference on time domain astrophysics hosted by RCSA to support research, intensive dialogue and community building to address scientific challenges of critical importance. At the conference, Hebb teamed up with Suvrath Mahadevan of Penn State University and John Wisniewski of Oklahoma State University, to develop their concept, which was chosen as one of six grant-winning proposals.
According to RCSA, only those proposals seen as “highly innovative and with the potential to transform the field of time domain astrophysics” were selected to receive a Scialog Collaborative Innovation Award. Hebb will apply funds to purchasing more telescope time at Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., where she and her research partners will install and test the diffuser.
The diffuser will surpass the limits of current ground-based instrumentation, allowing for more precise measurements of the brightness of stars that currently can only be seen by sending a multi-million dollar telescope into space. Hebb says the team will be able to observe variable stars and exoplanets — planets that orbit stars other than the sun — with extremely high precision. The purpose of studying these stellar phenomena, explains Hebb, is to provide new insight into the process of how planets have formed and stars change and evolve over time.
“In order to study the process of how planets formed we need to identify very small planets around nearby stars that are really bright, and to do this you need to use a large telescope,” Hebb explains. “Because the telescope needed is so large, the light saturates and you can’t make use of all the detector’s pixels. The diffuser will allow us to make use of all the detector’s pixels.”
Hebb and her team are currently conducting lab-tests on a small piece of the diffuser at Penn State before choosing a final design. The team will be testing their design in the summer and fall of 2016 at Apache Point Observatory. Hebb hopes to take an HWS student researcher with her to help with the installation and testing process.
Hebb joined the HWS faculty in 2012. She received a B.S. in electrical engineering from University of Denver, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in astrophysics from Johns Hopkins University. Hebb also conducted post-doctoral research at University of St. Andrews and at Vanderbilt University. She served as a member of the visiting faculty at University of Washington.