Astrophysics and Cosmology

The Astrophysics and Cosmology group focuses mainly on cosmology (the properties and evolution of the universe, growth of structure,evolution of galaxies) and supernovae (causes of Type-1a supernovae,modeling the spectrum of emitted light, use as standard candles to measure the expansion of the universe). We approach these problems using theoretical, computational, and observational techniques. We are involved with a number of current and upcoming astronomical survey projects which can address these questions.

Supernovae are the largest explosions known in the universe, occurring when a star or stellar remnant is no longer able to support itself against the pull of gravity. As it collapses, the sudden release of gravitational potential energy drives an explosion. John Hillier has built the world's leading non-equilibrium radiative transfer code to model the radiation we observe escaping from supernovae; he also uses this code to model the most massive known stars. Carles Badenes studies supernova remnants to figure out what causes Type-1a supernovae; his work has given support to the hypothesis that merging binary white dwarfs are responsible for most of these explosions. Michael Wood-Vasey has used Type-1a supernovae as standard candles to
measure the expansion history of the universe; his work has helped make the case that the universe's expansion is accelerating.

The cause of this accelerating expansion is one of the central questions of cosmology, along with the nature of dark matter, the physics of the very early universe, and the evolution of galaxies and larger structures. Andrew Zentner is a theorist who has worked on dark matter probes via gravitational lensing and evolution of stars. Arthur Kosowsky has addressed many of these questions using the theory of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Zentner and Kosowsky pursue constraints on particle physics using cosmological data, while Kosowsky and Dan Boyanovsky both study early-universe inflation. Jeff Newman is an observational astronomer who studies how the properties of galaxies change with time. Regina Schulte-Ladbeck is interested in the stellar populations and chemical evolution of galaxies. Dave Turnshek and Sandhya Rao study quasar absorption line systems.

A common theme connecting much of the work in the group is the use of astronomical survey techniques. The University of Pittsburgh was a member of the groundbreaking Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Michael Wood-Vasey served as Scientific Spokesperson for SDSS-III, while Carles Badenes is involved with SDSS-IV. Most of our faculty have used SDSS data in their work. Jeff Newman and Carles Badenes are both involved with the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), a project to build the next-generation wide-field multi-object spectrograph. Jeff Newman is a key member of the CANDELS survey, the largest-ever sky survey using the Hubble Space Telescope. Arthur Kosowsky participates in the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) collaboration, which makes arcminute-resolution maps of the microwave sky. Finally, several of the faculty have leadership roles in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project (Zentner, Wood-Vasey, Newman). Related to survey astronomy, Newman, Wood-Vasey, and Badenes are all interested in astronomical data-mining techniques and related statistical questions.

The Astrophysics and Cosmology group generally supports around a dozen graduate students and one or two postdoctoral researchers. We also encourage undergraduate involvement in research. The STEPUP program (Survey of Transiting Exoplanets at the University of Pittsburgh) uses a telescope at Allegheny Observatory to discover planets orbiting candidate stars identified by the Kepler satellite, and is run entirely by undergraduates.

Group members participate in activities of PITT PACC and organize workshops on astrophysical topics. We hold regular Astro Coffee meetings to discuss new discoveries and research results; these meetings are open to anyone who is interested. Members of the group also organize educational activities at Allegheny Observatory, including public lectures and observatory tours.