NANOGrav's Student Teams of Astrophysics Resarchers (STARS)

The NANOGrav Student Teams of Astrophysics ResearcherS (STARS, aka NANOStars) is a research and education program in which students control and operate the William E. Gordon Telescope located at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope located at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. These radio telescopes are operated by NANOStars students remotely (usually from home institutions) to collect real pulsar search and timing data. In addition, NANOStars students analyze some of the search data collected by these telescopes to look for new pulsars that might be present in the data. NANOStars students have discovered a number of new pulsars in this manner in the past few years.

The two main observational projects to which NANOStars students contribute are:

1. Major surveys for new radio pulsars in the plane of the Milky Way with Arecibo (the PALFA survey), and a survey of the Northern sky with the GBT (the GBNCC survey). These surveys are particularly sensitive to distant, rapidly-spinning pulsars ("millisecond pulsars") in our Galaxy.

2. The search for low-frequency gravitational waves using pulsar timing, which is the main NANOGrav project. A number of millisecond pulsars are routinely observed with both Arecibo and the GBT to build a database of timing observations that may contain a gravitational wave signal that can be revealed over a long time baseline.

There are currently a number of NANOStars groups around the country. All of the NANOStars institutions are members of the NANOGrav consortium.

NANOStars students work in small teams with a student team leader who is responsible for educating and training the team members in how to conduct the NANOStars pulsar observations with the telescope and how to analyze pulsar candidates in the data. Specifically, the leaders instruct the new students in how to look for and identify a pulsar in data, how to set up the computer for a remote observation, and how to conduct actual observations with the Arecibo and GBT telescopes. Team leaders also help coordinate signups for upcoming observing sessions.

Each NANOStars team meets weekly with their team leader to provide updates on observing and analysis progress and to get feedback from the team leader. Everyone at the institution also meets weekly with all institutional team members as well as faculty/staff leaders to discuss science results, present progress on their various research activities, and plan longer-term observing and data analysis tasks. Team members may also present a short summary during the meeting of their research work (or some other science, from the news, for instance).

There are also regularly scheduled NANOStars teleconferences where all of the NANOStars teams and faculty from all of the NANOStars institutions around the country meet via video teleconference to hear student and faculty presentations and to discuss any business that pertains to NANOStars as a whole. The aim is to have each NANOStars student give at least one presentation per semester at these teleconferences.

We also have twice-yearly face-to-face NANOGrav meetings with all NANOGrav members at various locations around the country. NANOStars students attend these conferences as funding permits.

The student engagement through NANOStars is important for interacting and networking between teams and institutions, and gives students a chance to see and learn about NANOGrav science and research opportunities. We have also brought NANOStars students to astronomy conferences and meetings, such as the American Astronomical Society meeting which is held each January.

If you are a student thinking about joining and participating in the NANOStars program at your institution, there are a number of benefits for you:

  1. You will gain real experience using research-grade radio telescopes (e.g., Arecibo). This is a valuable skill set to have if you plan on doing research in radio astronomy (or even other fields of astronomy) in the future.
  2. With enough of a contribution to observing or with the discovery of a pulsar, you may be included as a co-author on a journal paper written by either one of the survey consortia (e.g., PALFA, GBNCC) or the NANOGrav consortium. This is quite valuable if you plan to apply to graduate school or wish to work with one of the pulsar groups that make up these consortia.
  3. You work closely with your team members and learn to work as part of a team -- this is important in science and in many other endeavors in which being able to work productively in a team is a critical skill. You also get to know more seasoned astronomy students at your institution who can help guide and mentor you along the way.
  4. You connect with researchers at other institutions and meet people at larger meetings/conferences. This is very important in the relatively small field of astronomy where personal contact and networking can be important.
  5. You practice presentation skills, including how to present a science topic at the appropriate level for an audience consisting of "experts" (e.g., faculty members and postdocs) and "novices" (e.g., students who are just starting out in the field).
  6. You will be involved in real astronomy research. This is the kind of research opportunity that NANOGrav prides itself on for its undergraduate students and may give you a leg up if you apply to graduate programs.
  7. You will have the chance to develop leadership skills if you stay with the program. Once you learn the ropes, you may be asked to step up and become a team leader at your institution at some point in the future.

When you join NANOStars, you will be added to a team, you will learn about the program, and you will get familiar with the NANOStars activities (such as observing and candidate inspection). Since you will be required to observe with the telescope(s), you will need to quickly learn and demonstrate the observing procedure with Arecibo and get checked off by a team leader or instructor.

Depending on your institution, you may receive course credit for satisfactory performance during the semester, or you may receive pay or other benefits (this is institution-dependent). Note that apart from the typical observing requirement of successfully completing a certain number of hours per semester with Arecibo, there may also be requirements to rate a certain number of pulsar candidates inspected per week, to attend team meetings and all-hands meetings, to give a presentation on a topic, and to give regular reports to your team leader each week.

Fronefield Crawford (Franklin and Marshall College) is the faculty leader of the NANOStars program. Each institution participating in NANOStars will have its own faculty or staff leaders and student team leaders, and students should contact their own institutional faculty or staff leaders about joining NANOStars.