While engineers prepare the 150 planned VIRUS units for HETDEX observations, several University of Texas graduate students are putting the prototype, known as VIRUS-P, to use on a variety of research projects. They are using its wide field of view and its 280 optical fibers to produce detailed looks at the structure and composition of galaxies, nebulae, and other objects.
“VIRUS-P isn’t just testing the HETDEX concept,” explains Karl Gebhardt, one of the lead scientists for HETDEX. “It’s a full-fledged scientific instrument that’s providing an enormous amount of good data.”
The research projects range from the life and death of galaxies to the final acts of Sun-like stars. They have already produced several research papers and presentations, with more to follow in the next few years. They are also providing valuable information on how VIRUS works in real astronomical observations.
In any galactic beauty contest, the clear winners are the spirals. Their delicate arms, laced with jewel-like stellar nurseries, are among the most impressive sights in the universe. Tim Weinzirl is helping explain the processes that give birth to these galactic beauties. His observations are providing important data that will help astronomers select from several models of spiral-galaxy formation.
When galaxies collide, they produce some of the grandest fireworks displays in the universe. Clouds of gas ram together to create new stars, some of which are so massive that they quickly blast themselves to bits as supernovae. Amanda Heiderman is using VIRUS-P to study these pyrotechnics. Her project, known as VIXENS will study the process of star formation in 20 pairs of interacting galaxies.
Guillermo Blanc is using VIRUS-P to “dissect” nearby galaxies to learn how stars form, and in the process he is generating a flood of new information that will benefit other scientists’ work. His project is called VENGA, the VIRUS-P Exploration of Nearby Galaxies.
When our Sun dies, it will briefly surround itself with a veil of exquisite beauty: an expanding shell of gas and dust known as a planetary nebula. It is the final act of a star that has stopped producing energy in its core. Seyhun Hwang is studying this final act. His investigation may yield a new model of the last stages of Sun-like stars.