Astrophysics Professor Awarded $60,000 Telescope Allocation to Study the Stars

HIGH POINT, N.C., Jan. 10, 2019 – High Point University’s Dr. Brad Barlow, assistant professor of astrophysics, has been awarded $60,000 worth of observing time on one of the world’s largest telescopes to study two closely-orbiting stars.

Each semester, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory accepts proposals from astronomers all over the U.S. to compete for observing time at some of the world’s largest observatories. Barlow and his students will travel to UNC-Chapel Hill to remotely use the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope, which is located on Cerro Pachon in the Andes Mountains in Chile.

It’s among the top 10 largest optical telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere. Barlow’s team will have four nights of observing time, valued at $15,000 per night. HPU’s Kyle Corcoran, senior physics major, helped Barlow write and submit the proposal to NOAO requesting time on the SOAR.

“Our research group is thrilled to have received this competitive time allocation on the SOAR telescope, one of the premier optical observing facilities in the Southern Hemisphere,” says Barlow. “HPU undergraduates will not only assist me as we collect data with the telescope in the spring. They will also sit in the ‘driver’s seat’ and control its advanced instrumentation themselves.”

Barlow and his students will use this time to study extreme binary star systems called “HW Vir” binaries. These rare systems consist of two closely-orbiting stars, a low-mass object like a red dwarf (small star) or brown dwarf (failed star), and a higher-mass object that was previously an extremely large red giant star, like what the sun will one day evolve into. Because of how close the two stars are, Barlow says the smaller object somehow survived engulfment by a red giant, when its companion was in this stage of evolution.

Barlow was recently awarded nearly $350,000 from the National Science Foundation to investigate the effects that small objects, like planets, might have on the future evolution of stars similar to the sun. Barlow’s work with SOAR will help obtain data to answer the scientific questions raised in the NSF grant.

The observations will help determine whether there is a lower mass limit for objects to survive engulfment by a red giant. This work is part of a larger, international effort called the “EREBOS Project” that involves astronomers at the University of Potsdam in Germany, the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and the University of Valparaiso in Chile.

“The data collected will directly support the scientific objectives of our National Science Foundation research grant and help us determine whether small objects, like planets, can survive being engulfed by their host stars as they swell up to become red giants,” says Barlow. “The experiences our students will gain by operating and analyzing data from such a high-tech facility will prove invaluable to them later in their careers.

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