With cutting-edge research that spans the spectrum from “marsquakes” and meteorites to dark matter and extraterrestrial intelligence, UCLA faculty members are working to unravel the mysteries of the universe. UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences will be at our First Thursdays event tonight in Westwood to answer questions about the galaxy; NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter; and ELFIN, UCLA student-built and operated satellites.
Seismology on Earth and Mars
Beghein is an associate professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences at UCLA. She uses 3D mapping to model changes in seismic wave speed during quakes on Earth, as well as on Mars as part of the NASA’s InSight mission. She recently studied the largest “marsquake” ever recorded to and discovered that some of Mars’ crust might have been deformed by an impact event and that sedimentary rocks in the planet’s southern lowlands may contain large amounts of fluids such as gas or water.
“As on Earth, studying how seismic waves travel through rocks can yield clues about the temperature and composition of the planet below the surface that help inform the search for underground water or magma. Alternating volcanic rocks and sedimentary layers, which were deposited long ago, or a very large impact, such as a meteoroid, most likely account for the seismic wave measurements we observed on Mars.”
Exploring the primitive bodies of the solar system
Jewitt is a professor of planetary astronomy in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences. He uses ground-based and space-based telescopes to explore comets, asteroids, Kuiper belt objects and other primitive bodies of the solar system.
“Many people think of the solar system as a known place, but in fact only the inner parts have been observed in any detail. Some years ago, I discovered and then explored the Kuiper belt, a vast ring of primordial objects beyond Neptune. More recently I found a previously unsuspected population of bizarre hybrid asteroid–comet bodies that may tell us something about the origin of the oceans.”
Detecting dark matter
Kamaha is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA and an expert on dark matter. She co-led the program to keep the world’s most sensitive dark matter detector, LUX-ZEPLIN, free from contamination during the assembly process and led the installation and commissioning of its calibration systems. Her dark matter research with LUX-ZEPLIN is ongoing.
“Dark matter accounts for 85% of the matter in the universe, but we’ve never seen it nor detected it. The search for this missing matter is at the forefront of physics research today. Besides the satisfaction of completing our understanding of the matter content of the universe, I can’t help but to think about the potential technological advances which could arise from this. When I think that all the technological advances we have made thus far have arisen from our knowledge of only 15% of the universe’s matter, I can only imagine what we could do when we find and understand the missing 85%.”
Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence
Margot is a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences and the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy. His research interests include the dynamics and geophysics of planetary bodies, radio and radar astronomy, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). He leads a search for technosignatures around tens of thousands of planetary systems with the UCLA SETI Group.
“The search for life in the universe is one of humanity’s most profound scientific endeavors. Federal agencies are investing tens of billions of dollars to enable searches for biosignatures in the solar system or around nearby stars. With large radio telescopes, we can expand the search from primitive to complex life and from the solar neighborhood to the entire galaxy. The UCLA SETI Group is conducting a search that offers the prospect of an unambiguous detection of another civilization in the next few years.”
Asteroids, meteorites and the early solar system
McKeegan is a professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences. He is an expert on the formation of our solar system and the isotopic and chemical compositions of meteorites, asteroids and the moon. He is part of the group analyzing samples brought back from the Ryugu asteroid. In recognition of his contributions to meteorite science, asteroid 5663 was named McKeegan by the International Astronomical Union in 2002.
“Ryugu is the first carbon-rich asteroid from which samples have been gathered and studied. What makes Ryugu special is that unlike meteorites, it has not had potentially contaminating contact with Earth. By analyzing the chemical fingerprints in the samples, we can tell that the asteroid and similar objects formed relatively rapidly and very early in the outer solar system.”
When black holes collide
Naoz is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA. She’s a theoretical astrophysicist who studies the collisions of stars and black holes, as well as the architecture of extrasolar planetary systems and the formation of the very first stars. She also studies the “three-body problem,” attempting to understand and predict the movements of three astronomical bodies interacting with each other gravitationally.
“Astronomers used to think they might never detect black holes merging because it is challenging to overcome the stages of stellar evolution required for two stars to become black holes. However, the gravitational wave detector LIGO has recently detected them, and it’s really common — LIGO estimates two black holes merge about every 15 minutes! My group studies whether the presence of a third body, such as a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, can provide an explanation for how black holes merge.”
Infant galaxies after the Big Bang
Treu is a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA who studies cosmology: the formation and evolution of galaxies and black holes. He is using the James Webb Space Telescope to learn more about the Epoch of Reionization, when the first galaxies burned off light-obscuring hydrogen shortly after the Big Bang and made the universe transparent.
“Through the James Webb Space Telescope, we’re looking deep into the past to watch galaxies form new stars at an electrifying pace. Webb’s incredible resolution allows us to study these galaxies in unprecedented detail, and we see all of this star formation occurring within regions of these galaxies.”
AI, machine learning and the formation of galaxies
Do is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and deputy director the Galactic Center Group at UCLA. He is interested in understanding the formation of the nuclei of galaxies and the physics and astrophysics of supermassive black holes. He also leads the UCLA Astrophysics Data Lab, which is developing new machine learning methods to answer fundamental questions in astrophysics about the origin of our universe.
“Our lab is currently developing similar technology to those that power generative AI art to see if we can learn how the universe formed from training on images of galaxies across cosmic time. We can now produce realistic-looking galaxies, but we want to probe further to see whether the machine learning models are learning something about the physics of how the universe works.”
Here comes the sun
Ulrich is a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at UCLA. His research on solar neutrinos eventually led him to study the physics of our own sun more broadly. He also oversees a project to digitize an archive of more than 150,000 images of the sun taken over the past 100 years at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, with a special interest in the magnetic and velocity records.
“Solar physics is in a bit of an odd corner, being a source of disturbances in the Earth’s environment and being very complex. Big solar storms can harm airline passengers and crew, cause radio blackouts, damage electrical transmission grids and can cause failure of spacecraft. Space weather is a factor in human life these days and watching the sun is a way to get forewarning.”