BYU Astronomy Research Group Joins the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC)

As of January 2021 BYU will be a member of the ARC Consortium (Link to Consortium) with access to the ARC 3.5-m telescope and the 0.5-m ARCSAT telescope.  The primary use of the ARC 3.5-m telescope time is for graduate student projects.  This provides a wide array of instrumentation that is currently being used to study objects in the solar system all the way to studies of the large scale structure of the Universe.

Other BYU Astronomy Facilities

In addition to our telescope time from the ARC consortium, we operate a number of our own astronomical facilities

West Mountain Observatory (West Mountain)

This is our mountain observatory at about 6600 ft above sea level.  This consists of three telescopes: 0.9-m, 0.5-m, and a 0.32-m. It is a 40 minute drive that ends in a 5 miles drive up a dirt road. The mountain itself can be seen from campus. We don't provide any tours of this facility.

Orson Pratt Observatory

The Orson Pratt Observatory is named for an early apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  It is our campus telescope facility and contains a wide variety of telescopes for student research and public outreach. We operate a 24" PlaneWave telescope in the main campus dome, plus a 16", two 12", one 8", and a 6" telescope on our observation deck.  The telescopes are all fully robotic. Beyond this we have a large sections of telescopes used on public nights.

Royden G. Derrick Planetarium (Planetarium)

This is a 119 seat, 39" dome planetarium with acoustically treated walls to allow it's use as a lecture room. Recently we upgraded to an E&S Digistar7 operating system with 4K projectors.  The planetarium is used for teaching classes, public outreach, and astronomy education research projects.

Selected Publications

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BYU Authors: M. Joner, D. Watts, and M. Holland, published in The Astronomer's Telegram

We report on a new optical flaring state of BL Lacertae. The blazar is regularly monitored in the framework of the GASP Project of the Whole Earth Blazar Telescope.

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BYU Authors: M D Joner and C D Laney, published in Mon. Not. Roy. Astron. Soc.

Multiwavelength variability studies of active galactic nuclei (AGN) can be used to probe their inner regions which are not directly resolvable. Dust reverberation mapping (DRM) estimates the size of the dust emitting region by measuring the delays between the infrared (IR) response to variability in the optical light curves. We measure DRM lags of Zw229-015 between optical ground-based and Kepler light curves and concurrent IR Spitzer 3.6 and 4.5 μm light curves from 2010–2015, finding an overall mean rest-frame lag of 18.3 ± 4.5 days. Each combination of optical and IR light curve returns lags that are consistent with each other within 1σ, which implies that the different wavelengths are dominated by the same hot dust emission. The lags measured for Zw229-015 are found to be consistently smaller than predictions using the lag-luminosity relationship. Also, the overall IR response to the optical emission actually depends on the geometry and structure of the dust emitting region as well, so we use Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) modelling to simulate the dust distribution to further estimate these structural and geometrical properties. We find that a large increase in flux between the 2011–2012 observation seasons, which is more dramatic in the IR light curve, is not well simulated by a single dust component. When excluding this increase in flux, the modelling consistently suggests that the dust is distributed in an extended flat disk, and finds a mean inclination angle of 49 degrees.

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BYU Authors: Elizabeth J. Jeffery, Benjamin J. Taylor, and Michael D. Joner, published in Astrophys. J.

Gains in our understanding of stellar evolution over the last century are largely due to improvements in stellar models. One key aspect in the use of these models is a reliable transformation between theoretical values (such as luminosity and temperature) to observable quantities (such as magnitude and color). To assess the current state of this transformation, we sought to compare model-determined temperatures from color–magnitude diagram fitting to temperatures obtained from photometric colors or spectroscopy. Our sample for analysis was 88 nonbinary stars in the Hyades open star cluster. By applying a sophisticated Bayesian algorithm we fit five widely available model sets to high-quality photometric data combined with Gaia parallaxes. This analysis provides specific feedback for improving temperature–color transformations, as well as practical guidance for using results based on these models.

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BYU Authors: G. Apolonio, M. K. Hallum, and M. D. Joner, published in Nature

Blazars are active galactic nuclei (AGN) with relativistic jets whose non-thermal radiation is extremely variable on various timescales. This variability seems mostly random, although some quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs), implying systematic processes, have been reported in blazars and other AGN. QPOs with timescales of days or hours are especially rare in AGN and their nature is highly debated, explained by emitting plasma moving helically inside the jet, plasma instabilities or orbital motion in an accretion disc. Here we report results of intense optical and γ-ray flux monitoring of BL Lacertae (BL Lac) during a dramatic outburst in 2020 (ref. 9). BL Lac, the prototype of a subclass of blazars, is powered by a 1.7 × 108 MSun (ref. 11) black hole in an elliptical galaxy (distance = 313 megaparsecs (ref. 12)). Our observations show QPOs of optical flux and linear polarization, and γ-ray flux, with cycles as short as approximately 13 h during the highest state of the outburst. The QPO properties match the expectations of current-driven kink instabilities near a recollimation shock about 5 parsecs (pc) from the black hole in the wake of an apparent superluminal feature moving down the jet. Such a kink is apparent in a microwave Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) image.

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BYU Authors: Michael D. Joner and Benjamin D. Boizelle, published in Astrophys. J.

We have modeled the velocity-resolved reverberation response of the Hβ broad emission line in nine Seyfert 1 galaxies from the Lick Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) Monitoring Project 2016 sample, drawing inferences on the geometry and structure of the low-ionization broad-line region (BLR) and the mass of the central supermassive black hole. Overall, we find that the Hβ BLR is generally a thick disk viewed at low to moderate inclination angles. We combine our sample with prior studies and investigate line-profile shape dependence, such as ${\mathrm{log}}_{10}(\mathrm{FWHM}/\sigma )$, on BLR structure and kinematics and search for any BLR luminosity-dependent trends. We find marginal evidence for an anticorrelation between the profile shape of the broad Hβ emission line and the Eddington ratio, when using the rms spectrum. However, we do not find any luminosity-dependent trends, and conclude that AGNs have diverse BLR structure and kinematics, consistent with the hypothesis of transient AGN/BLR conditions rather than systematic trends.

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BYU Authors: Michael D. Joner, published in Astrophys. J.

Photoionization modeling of active galactic nuclei (AGN) predicts that diffuse continuum (DC) emission from the broad-line region makes a substantial contribution to the total continuum emission from ultraviolet through near-infrared wavelengths. Evidence for this DC component is present in the strong Balmer jump feature in AGN spectra, and possibly from reverberation measurements that find longer lags than expected from disk emission alone. However, the Balmer jump region contains numerous blended emission features, making it difficult to isolate the DC emission strength. In contrast, the Paschen jump region near 8200 Å is relatively uncontaminated by other strong emission features. Here, we examine whether the Paschen jump can aid in constraining the DC contribution, using Hubble Space Telescope Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph spectra of six nearby Seyfert 1 nuclei. The spectra appear smooth across the Paschen edge, and we find no evidence of a Paschen spectral break or jump in total flux. We fit multicomponent spectral models over the range 6800–9700 Å and find that the spectra can still be compatible with a significant DC contribution if the DC Paschen jump is offset by an opposite spectral break resulting from blended high-order Paschen emission lines. The fits imply DC contributions ranging from ∼10% to 50% at 8000 Å, but the fitting results are highly dependent on assumptions made about other model components. These degeneracies can potentially be alleviated by carrying out fits over a broader wavelength range, provided that models can accurately represent the disk continuum shape, Fe ii emission, high-order Balmer line emission, and other components.