Research Support Fund: The Synergy of Astronomy and Physics at Bishop’s University

Research Support Fund: The Synergy of Astronomy and Physics at Bishop’s University

The Research Support Fund of the Government of Canada is a program that provides funds to cover a portion of the costs associated with managing the research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Research Support Fund grants are based on the funding received by researchers from the three federal granting agencies in the three most recent years for which data are available. Here is an example of the research that the RSF helps make possible.

Dr. Lorne Nelson, professor of Astrophysics at Bishop’s University, makes no effort in hiding his enthusiasm when describing the several research projects that he is simultaneously leading. They range from an exploration of the behaviour of close interacting binaries to an examination of the light curves of different binary systems captured by the recently reconstituted Kepler Telescope (K2). Three undergraduate students working under his supervision thanks to NSERC’s Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA), along with two Master’s students and a team of research professionals are given the opportunity to take part in cutting edge research in the field of astrophysics and to work with high-performance computers, specifically Compute Canada’s supercluster computers housed at the Université de Sherbrooke.

Dr. Nelson, who works in collaboration with Dr. Saul Rappaport at MIT, uses observations gleaned from the Kepler Telescope in a number of projects. In one, he follows the evolution of a peculiar Algol-like system, a close interacting binary in which two stars interact gravitationally with one another, causing one star to be cannibalized by the other. One of Dr. Nelson’s aims is to use the so-called Algol Paradox to explain the properties of several binaries that he is investigating. The apparent paradox arises because the bigger, more massive star in the binary appears to be younger and thus less evolved than its companion star. Although the more massive star should logically evolve more quickly and thus achieve the status of “giant” first, this is not what is actually observed. The solution to the paradox is that the more massive but younger-looking star has actually pulled off matter from the other star which was originally the bigger of the two. What eventually results is a binary consisting of a white dwarf (the remnant of the originally bigger star) and a massive star (originally the smaller of the two). Numerical simulations currently being run reveal that these systems can undergo a second phase of mass transfer (a reversal) and, depending on the properties of the original binary, can produce binaries containing two white dwarf stars.

In a parallel research project, Dr. Nelson is investigating the properties of unusual binaries identified by Kepler (some of which host exoplanets) by obtaining their spectra. Using observations taken at the Observatoire du Mont Megantic, Dr. Nelson constructs what he calls a “cosmic barcode,” that is, the fingerprint of all elements in a given star. By studying the light curves of different binary systems obtained with K2 and trying to figure out how they correlate with the spectra, Dr. Nelson and his team are aiming to unlock the secrets of many of the exotic binaries that have been found by the Kepler Telescope.

Dr. Nelson held a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Astrophysics at Bishop’s University for seven years; he is a Director of the Canadian Astronomical Society and a Board Member of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. The Research Support Fund supports access to the laboratories, computers and equipment that allow Dr. Nelson and his team to conduct their research.