Major NSF grants for cosmic studies include O’Meara

By: Mark Tarnacki

Visualization of the plasma in the cosmic web: this image shows the filaments of gas that connect galaxies (shown as knots and clumps along the filaments), and which can be seen in observations of absorption lines in quasar spectra. From Britton Smith (U. Edinburgh), Brian O’Shea (MSU); Shea is part of John O’Meara’s recently funded study.

With the help of two recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling close to $1.2 million for him and collaborators at top universities, Saint Michael’s College astrophysicist John O’Meara will try to “join two powerful tools for exploring the universe: observations from the largest telescopes in the world and simulations from the most powerful supercomputers.”

“The point of the fundamental research is understanding the universe better -- understanding how atoms that make us up got here,” said O’Meara, who regularly uses the Hubble Space Telescope and some of the world’s largest ground telescopes in Hawaii and Chile for his work. This semester, he’s also teaching an astronomy course and Introduction to Physics for Saint Michael’s undergraduates.

NSF only approves about 11 percent of the submitted proposals that it reviews, so this would be a big deal for any scientist, he said.

O’Meara learned this week that the NSF approved a proposal by himself and “co-principal investigator” collaborators from Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins and Michigan State, titled “Collaborative Research: Multiscale Physics and Feedback in Real and Simulated Circumgalactic Gas Over Cosmic Time,” and granted funds of $833,000 to the team. “This is certainly the largest single grant proposal I’ve been on,” O’Meara said, adding that it is also the first time he’s been named a principal investigator (PI) on an NSF-funded project.

He helped write the proposal during his sabbatical last year, and the work comes out of longstanding collaborations with the others. “This is an unusually large grant since it’s a collaborative project,” he said, “and there may be opportunities for student research since this is a four-year grant.”

A few days before that grant news, O’Meara learned that NSF also approved funds of just over $400,000 for another project for which he is a co-investigator, along with two Europeans; they’re led by principal investigator Matthew McQuinn at the University of Washington (John’s alma mater). This proposal aims “to better understand the large-scale aspects of the universe by studying the intergalactic medium,” he said. “We will use the data archive of Keck telescope data that I have built over the last few years … to make detailed statistical studies of the gas in the intergalactic medium, which will provide insights into how the temperature, distribution of matter and sources of light change throughout the universe on cosmological scales.”

Funds for both grants will pay for such things as travel to telescopes for the scientists or for the collaborators to come together periodically; or for various related post-doctoral projects at the different institutions, along with other expenses.

O’Meara said the larger project, for which he’s co-principal investigator, “will combine observations from the Keck, Large Binocular and Hubble telescopes with some of the most detailed simulations of the circumgalactic medium ever made -- it’s very exciting to work with the best data and the best simulations in the world, and I look forward to what we can learn when we combine the two!”

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