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Astronomy Research Fellowship Will Map One Billion Stars in the Milky Way and Beyond

A student uses a large black telescope in an on campus observatory
Written By Nick Wilson

A new Astronomy Faculty Research Fellowship in Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics will expand opportunities for faculty and student collaborations on space science.

The program is supported by a generous donation from the Marrujo Foundation, established by Dan and Rosamaria Marrujo.

The fellowship, which has been funded for three years, relieves faculty from teaching duties so they can work more closely with students on research. Elizabeth Jeffery, a Cal Poly assistant professor of physics, will lead the research in the first year. The work begins this spring using scientific methodology to study the ages of stars. She’ll soon begin actively recruiting a research team of students, who will explore data related to locations and brightness of stars to better understand how long they’ve existed.

Jeffery’s research will focus on white dwarf stars, which represent the endpoint of a low mass star’s life. Near the end of its nuclear burning stage, this type of star expels most of its outer material, creating a planetary nebula. Only the hot core of the star remains. Like other stars, the sun will eventually become a white dwarf; experts say that could be in 5 billion years.

“We can learn a lot from white dwarfs and use them to measure star ages,” Jeffery said. “The analogy I like to give is if you’re out camping, the coals glow bright right after you take them out of the campfire because they’re hot, and then their brightness fades as they cool. As time passes, white dwarf stars also get cooler and, as a result, become fainter.”

A white dwarf star cools down at a predictable rate over perhaps a billion or so years; its brightness helps determine how old it is and how long it has been cooling. Jeffery said these stars are like the fossil remnants of the galaxy — a valuable resource for a kind of astronomy archaeology or paleontology.

“I want students to be excited about this opportunity to pursue their passion … success is built on the people doing the work.” — Dan Marrujo, alumnus and founder of the Marrujo Foundation

Jeffery and her students will use open-source data gathered by the satellite Gaia — a European Space Agency space observatory that launched in 2013 — on a 12-year mission to create a precise three-dimensional map of more than a billion stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy and beyond, charting their motions, luminosity, temperature and composition.

“It’s a big project that will need to be accomplished in phases, and having a good chunk of time is valuable,” Jeffery said. “We’re thrilled to have this funding to be able to do this work.”

Additional Cal Poly astronomy faculty focusing on different research are expected to participate in the fellowship in the second and third years of the pilot partnership.

The Marrujo Foundation supports and works with educational institutions to further research in astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology to establish a world-leading fellowship ecosystem. The foundation’s efforts aim to ensure that institutional work challenges current understanding of space, creates new opportunities and makes a difference in people’s lives across the U.S. and around the globe.

“The intent here is to create an ecosystem that strengthens the core of what Cal Poly is doing,” said Dan Marrujo, president of Trusted Strategic Solutions, a Silicon Valley-based consulting and government relations firm. “We’ll use world-renowned resources, from space telescopes to satellite data collection. I want students to be excited about this opportunity to pursue their passion.”

Marrujo holds a master’s degree in materials engineering and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a minor in physics from Cal Poly. He is the former chief strategy officer and former director of the Office of Research and Technology Applications at the Defense Microelectronics Activity, delivering microelectronics solutions to the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Success is built on the people doing the work,” Marrujo said. “We’re just an enabler promoting the exciting Learn by Doing experiences for faculty and students that help propel careers.”

Lead photo: A student conducts research using a telescope in the Cal Poly Observatory in 2021. Photo by Joe Johnston.

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