Physics Professor Awarded NASA Grant

Professor Glen Piner and physics studentsThe first NASA grant to be awarded to Whittier College will support an astronomer’s study of blazars.

Professor of Physics and Astronomy Glenn Piner has been awarded a $94,991 grant from the Fermi Guest Investigator Program ( at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The one-year award will support his proposal, “The Parsec-Scale Jets of an Expanded Sample of TeV Blazars as seen by the Upgraded VLBA.” Fermi is a space observatory that is performing gamma-ray astronomy observations from low Earth orbit. As a Fermi Guest Investigator, Piner will also have access to 129 hours of observing time with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) of radio telescopes.

Piner and his team will use the VLBA to make high-resolution images of supermassive black hole systems in the distant universe that produce very high-energy gamma-ray radiation from near the black hole. Such systems are known as blazars.

“Blazars produce some of the highest energy light known in the universe,” explains Piner. “Because such light must be produced by high-energy particles, blazars act as nature’s particle accelerators, although much of their physics remains controversial.”

Piner’s co-investigator on the project is Dr. Philip Edwards of CSIRO in Australia. The grant will allow Piner to extend his regularly scheduled one-semester sabbatical to a full year, as well as fund conference travel and the purchase of computer workstations to store and process the VLBA data. The award will also fund summer positions for Whittier College physics majors, who will analyze some of the VLBA data for this project.

The team will image the few dozen blazars that are known to produce the highest energy gamma-rays (over one trillion electron-volts, or 1 TeV), and then use these images to constrain the physical properties of these objects, such as the speed of the emitting matter, the magnetic field strength and configuration, and the structure of the gamma-ray emitting region relative to the central black hole.

“These measurements are a crucial step toward understanding the production of some of the highest energy light in the universe,” adds Piner.

As one of the highest resolution telescopes in the world (about one million times the resolution of the human eye), the VLBA is ideal for producing the images for this project. It has recently been upgraded to be much more sensitive, allowing the researchers to detect the faint radio emission from the objects in this study.

This grant is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Grant Agreement No. NNX13AO82G.

The Fermi GI program is intended to encourage scientific participation by providing funding to carry out investigations using Fermi data, to conduct correlative observations at other wavelengths, to develop data analysis techniques applicable to the Fermi data, and to carry out theoretical investigations in support of Fermi observations.

Read more in the Whittier Daily News

(First published 9-16-2013)