New York University physicist Maryam Modjaz will study the explosions of stars using a method she calls “stellar forensics” under a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.
CAREER awards are the most prestigious NSF award for junior faculty and are given to those who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
Under the 5-year, $500,000 grant, Modjaz will observe the host environments of different kinds of stellar explosions in order to investigate which kinds of stars have exploded and why.
“Astrophysics is entering the Golden Age of innovative time surveys that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the sky,” says Modjaz. “Fundamental to this knowledge is the ability to look backward in time to see what conditions led to the explosion of various stars—phenomena that helped shape galaxies, as we know them today and that produced many of the elements vital for our life, such as iron.”
Her research will focus on two major types of stellar explosions, long-duration gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) and stripped-envelope supernovae (Stripped SN), which are both products of collapsing massive stars. Supernovae become as brilliant as a billion suns combined while GRBs are violent explosions that launch particles moving nearly at the speed of light. Thus far, astronomers have been unable to pinpoint the stars that produce each kind of explosion.
Under the NSF CAREER Award, Modjaz’s research group will determine what produced Stripped SN by developing an understanding of their host environments as well as their link to GRBs. To do so, Modjaz will use data from the Palomar Transient Factory, which has collected one of the largest samples of stripped SN to date.
By measuring both the metallicities (proportions of matter that do not include hydrogen and helium) and masses of stellar populations at the SN sites—the habitats of the explosions—Modjaz and her colleagues will be able to deduce the make-up of the stellar progenitors that in some cases yielded Stripped SN and in others, GRBs.
“A clear understanding of the stellar progenitors of SN and GRBs is essential to using them as indicators of star formation over cosmological distances—and fundamental to tracing the chemical history of the universe,” says Modjaz.