UVA's Young, Rising Astronomy Star
Since the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope nearly two years ago, astronomers from around the world have competed for access to the $10 billion telescope’s unprecedented capabilities. The Space Telescope Science Institute has fielded thousands of General Observer proposals in two calls for projects; less than a quarter of those have been approved.
The proposal submitted by Crowe, a Chesapeake, Va., native majoring in astrophysics and history, is one of only 249 General Observer programs selected for observation time in the Cycle 2 call.
NASA does not track the graduate or undergraduate student status of researchers submitting Webb Telescope proposals — 10% of the approved Cycle 2 proposals are led by what the Space Telescope Science Institute identifies as “student Principal Investigators.” Crowe’s advisors in the Department of Astronomy in UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences believe, however, that he is the first undergraduate college student to lead an approved Webb Telescope General Observer project.
“It’s hard enough to become a principal investigator on a James Webb Space Telescope program as a professor,” said Jonathan Tan, a research professor in UVA’s Department of Astronomy and one of Crowe’s mentors. “From what I understand, maybe 10 to 20% of [approved] projects are led by graduate students, often within research teams, but this is exceptional.”
Working with Tan, his Department of Astronomy advisor and postdoctoral researcher Yichen Zhang, and Rubén Fedriani, a postdoctoral researcher at Spain’s Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Crowe oversees an international research team featuring 13 astronomers from observatories and universities in Spain, Sweden and Japan, as well as UVA and the University of Texas. The program’s Webb Telescope observations, carried out in September, have allowed Crowe’s team to collect data from Sagittarius C, a molecular cloud in the Galactic Center, the central zone of our Milky Way Galaxy.
NASA released Webb Telescope images from the program's observation window on Nov. 20. The new and striking images reveal never-before-seen features from the dense center of our galaxy in unprecedented detail, including a stellar "bonfire" of star formation cradled in a large infrared-dark cloud and enshrouded by a mist of ionized hydrogen emission. Crowe's group is using these infrared images, along with other data on star formation activity from the extreme environment of Sagittarius C, to study how stars are forming in the dense center of our galaxy.
It's an opportunity that Crowe barely allowed himself to imagine as he scrambled in January to finish the proposal before the deadline.
“I remember sitting in the airport in Atlanta, getting ready to fly back to Charlottesville for the start of the spring semester after attending an astronomy conference in Seattle and thinking this would, if anything, just be a good learning experience,” said Crowe, who attends UVA on a full-tuition University Achievement Award as an Echols and Robert Kent Gooch Scholar. “The idea of leading a James Webb proposal as an undergraduate student seemed totally absurd, at least in my head. But the more I talked it through with Jonathan [Tan] and Yichen, the more it seemed possible.”
Unprecedented access to the stars
Crowe’s passion for astronomy dates to his early childhood. He remembers peppering his father with bedtime questions about black holes and poring over library books and watching YouTube videos about the stars and astronomy. His mother, Anne Fernando, served as his early STEM role model, completing her Ph.D. as a stay-at-home mom of three boys before becoming a mathemathics professor at Norfolk State University. (Fernando joined him on Grounds this semester, teaching applied mathematics in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.)
“She’s always been a huge inspiration to me,” Crowe said of his mother. “She’s inspired me to pursue my dreams and to never give in to setbacks or fears that I can’t do something. She was the first person I called when I found out that I got the Webb time.”
Designed to study the origins of the first stars and galaxies dating back 13.7 billion years, the Webb Telescope has already delivered a series of dazzling and unprecedented images since its launch into space. Seven times more sensitive than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb Telescope has proven to be a significant advance in the sharpness of its images, its ability to detect faint infrared sources of light and to potentially expand our understanding of how planets form, what types of planets develop and their potential habitability for life.
“It’s really a game changer. It's opening up brand new vistas in almost every area,” said Tan, an international expert in star formation studies. “We’ve never been able to observe very low-mass stars across so many different environments before the Webb Telescope. These are the most common kinds of stars and may host the most common types of habitable planets in our Galaxy. Finally, we may be able to understand where the masses of stars come from, their initial mass function, because right now there’s no consensus.”
Crowe’s Webb Telescope project follows a research project that he participated in with Tan last year. Crowe presented a talk on the project at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle last January. Shortly after the talk, Tan approached Crowe to congratulate him.
“That kind of planted the seed,” Crowe said. “He came up to me and said, ‘It was a good talk. We could envision a JWST follow-up proposal on this research.’”
Putting the final touches on the proposal came down nearly to the last minute before the Jan. 27 deadline. Crowe had only a couple days to review the existing literature on Sagittarius C and star formation to begin crafting the scientific reasoning for collecting data for their project with Webb Telescope observation time. He began writing the proposal less than week before it was due. Crowe remembers running home at the end of a class in the Chemistry Building to finish and hit ‘send’ minutes before the Friday evening deadline.
The Webb Telescope program isn’t the only plate that Crowe has spinning in the air. He spent most of this summer in Granada, Spain working with Fedriani on a separate astronomy research project. Fedriani helped Sam with the technical set-up of the accepted JWST proposal, and they had many discussions on the best strategy to follow.
“It has been a pleasure working with Sam in preparing this proposal. Sam is very motivated and I have learned a lot from him,” said Fedriani, who holds a Juan de La Cierva Fellowship.
While Granada served as home base this summer, Crowe also traveled to several other European countries, including Sweden, where Tan is partially based, to work on the separate research project.
“The students I encounter at the University of Virginia are extremely high level, but Sam has stood out in many ways. Sam really played the major role in designing this observation program for James Webb. He really was brave enough to take it on,” Tan said. “And it's not as if his name was just put on the proposal. He really designed where we're going to look, chose the target. … From the first time we met, I think, he was asking me so many questions, and very difficult questions. My first impression was, ‘We have to hire this guy to help us on our projects.’ I’m so glad we did.”
But it may be Crowe’s other major that’s the secret to his success.
A historical bent
Astrophysics is widely considered one of the most challenging and time-consuming undergraduate majors at UVA, but that hasn’t prevented Crowe from pursuing other academic interests. His fascination with ancient Greek and Roman history led him to also declare a history major last spring.
“I think studying history complements the science very well,” Crowe said. “It's actually a very neat balance and a beautiful combination. For example, even in my regular coursework, it's so refreshing to do a problem set in physics or astronomy or math and then switch over to something totally different and read about Alexander the Great’s military tactics.”
Crowe also believes the training provided by writing papers for his history classes improved his chances of getting the Webb Telescope project approved.
“To be honest, if I wasn't majoring in history and didn't have the writing skills that those classes have given me, I don't think the proposal would have gone as well. You're putting together a justification for your project to be read by scientific experts for why you should get time on the most advanced telescope instruments that have ever been built. You have to have pretty strong argumentative skills.”
Crowe and his fellow investigators continue to work with their data from the Webb Telescope. They plan on presenting the initial scientific results in January at the American Astronomical Society conference in New Orleans.
“It’s great that we’re collecting state-of-the-art data with this fantastic telescope,” Tan said. “It’s even more amazing that it’s being led by one of UVA’s best undergrads.”