Ths Sun is seen to move from East to West every day. The appearance and position of the Moon change from night to night. The planets wander across the sky. Comets or even new stars sometimes appear. In short, some of the most familiar astronomical phenomena involve variability, either in brightness, shape, or position. Although it is nothing new, the study of phenomena that involve a change over time are nowadays called time-domain astronomy. Most of my research focuses on variable objects, near or far.
Stars going boom: Gamma-ray bursts and supernovae
We now think that GRBs lasting longer than about two seconds are caused by the collapse of a massive star (somewhere between 20 and 40 times the mass of the Sun) and is accompanied by a supernova (see below for supernovae). In almost every case where we can find evidence of a SN accompanying a GRB, we have found such evidence.
As for short GRBs, those lasting less than about two seconds, they are thought to arise from the merger of two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole.
The supernova (SN) phenomenon is a spectacular display, a kind of cosmic fireworks that marks the end of the evolution of two type of stars.
- Core-collapse supernovae: When a star with a mass larger than about eight times the mass of our Sun reaches the end of its life (i.e. when it has exhausted its nuclear fuel), its core will collapse suddenly. More often than not (or so we think), the star will explode and will shine very brightly for weeks and months.
- Type Ia supernovae Another type of supernova come
from white dwarf stars. When a star with a mass less than
about 8 times the mass of the Sun reaches the end of its life
(i.e. when there is no more nuclear fuel), the stellar core that is
left behind will cool: that's a white dwarf.
A white dwarf in a binary system can gain some mass from this companion if the two stars are close enough. It may gain so much mass that it can collapse under its own weight. Nuclear reaction will start again and the star will explode.
Stars going Up and Down: Cepheids and variable stars
Stars are very much like a simple pendulum. A pendulum is stable when it is perfectly vertical. When it is moved away from its equilibrium position, it tries to get back to it, "overshoots (goes too far), then moves back, etc. If there is no friction, the pendulum can oscillate forever. Stars do the same. They can shine at a constant luminosity but they can also be a little away from their equilibrium, in which case they will pulsate. They will appear periodically bright and faint. Go to the web site of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO); it has a lot of background information on variable stars.
One particular type of variable stars I am interested in are Cepheids. They vary in size and luminosity extremely regularly. As time-keepers, they are much more accurate than most wrist-watches one can buy but this is not their main use. It turns out that the pulsation period of a Cepheid — the time it takes for a whole cycle of getting-faint-and-getting-bright-again, typically between a few days and a few weeks — is related to its average luminosity. This means that if we measure the period of a Cepheid, we can measure its luminosity, hence its distance. This Period_Luminosity relation (PL) is what makes Cepheids very useful to measure distance in the local Universe. Most of my work on Cepheids is connected to their use as distance indicators.
One particular issue I have been working on is the metallicity dependence of the PL relation. To build a large sample of Cepheids all at the same distance, we have surveyed the nearby galaxy M33. Complete results are not yet out but you can already check out the M33 variability survey page
Stars coming up or fading away: Star formation in nearby galaxies
It is this second approach that I focus on. In collaboration with Maurizio Salaris and PhD student Emma Small, we are working on a general method to determine the star formation history of any galaxy using stellar magnitudes. Starting from a colour-magnitude diagram, our objective, non-parametric method accurately recovers the formation rate and metallicity of the stars as a function of time.
Projects for students: