Previously known as the Joint Space-Science Institute (JSI) Prize Postdoctoral Fellowship, the fellowship was renamed in honor of JSI founding member Neil Gehrels (1952–2017)
Erin Kara, a Hubble Fellow in the University of Maryland’s Department of Astronomy, has been awarded the inaugural Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellowship, formerly known as the Joint Space-Science Institute Prize Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Gehrels, who was a College Park Professor of Astronomy at UMD and chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, passed away on February 6, 2017. A pioneer in the study of gamma-ray bursts—high-energy radiation blasts that come from deep space—Gehrels worked as a project scientist and investigator on several notable missions, including the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Mission. Gehrels was also a founding member of the Joint Space-Science Institute—a collaboration between UMD’s Department of Astronomy and Department of Physics and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
A few days before his death, Gehrels was named a 2017 Dan David Prize laureate for the Future Time Dimension in the field of astronomy, along with Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech and Andrzej Udalski of Warsaw University. The prize included a $1 million award, and Gehrels’ family donated his share to UMD, establishing the Neil Gehrels Memorial Endowment in Astrophysics to support UMD students and postdocs engaged in research with astrophysicists at NASA Goddard.
“Neil would be delighted to see this talented young scientist starting her career with support from this fund,” said Gehrels’ widow, Ellen Williams, who is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at UMD.
Kara, who came to UMD in 2015 after receiving her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, will use the support to continue her studies into the physics of black holes, particularly accretion disks—a ring of hot gas that surrounds the event horizon of a black hole.
“Receiving this fellowship makes me feel like I have some big shoes to fill,” Kara said. “Neil had very important foresights in how to use telescopes, which enabled new science that I am now benefitting from. I hope I can do the name justice.”
Kara added that receiving the fellowship feels particularly special because of her experience working with Gehrels at NASA.
“When I first arrived at Goddard, Neil was just incredibly welcoming and also incredibly supportive,” Kara said. “Even though he was extremely busy, he was willing to sit down and listen to what you had to say. He was even willing to help me with a project by giving me his director’s discretionary time on the Swift Mission.”
Kara uses observed X-ray emissions to study tidal disruption events, in which a star gets too close to the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy and is subsequently ripped apart by the black hole. As the star disintegrates, its stellar debris falls into the black hole, causing the emission of radiation such as X-rays from the black hole. By observing and analyzing the radiation, astronomers can learn about the physics and dynamics of the black hole.
Kara was lead author of a study that was the first to document flashes of X-rays echoing deep within the walls of a previously dormant black hole’s accretion disk. By measuring and analyzing the X-ray echoes, Kara and her collaborators discerned the shape and activity of the accretion disk near a supermassive black hole named Swift J1644+57. The research was published in the journal Nature in June 2016.
“Making that discovery was one of the most exciting moments of my research,” Kara said. “I was about to go home when I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just try this one thing and see if we can see echoes from this event.’ We saw them, and I ended up staying pretty late into the night.”
Kara added that the discovery has a connection to Gehrels: the black hole observed in the study was found using the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. Formerly known as the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Mission, the mission was renamed as the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in January 2018 in honor of Gehrels, who helped develop Swift and served as its principal investigator.
Currently, Kara’s work uses data from the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument onboard the International Space Station to discover and characterize black holes.
“There’s a part of supermassive black holes called the corona, which is a region just around the black hole,” Kara said. “Active black holes emit an incredible amount of radiation—more than all the stars in a galaxy combined—and about 10 percent of that radiation is in the form of X-rays from the corona. Thanks to NICER data, we’re starting to discover the geometry and the dynamics of this region, which gives us insight into how the corona develops.”
Kara will use the Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue her research until she joins the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an assistant professor in 2019.
“There were so many things that the Dan David Prize money could have been used for, and nobody was really expecting that this fellowship would be created,” Kara said. “I think it is really a wonderful way to commemorate Neil, and I’d like to thank the family for enabling the science of not only myself, but future Neil Gehrels Fellows.”
UMD’s Department of Physics; Department of Astronomy; and College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences also support the Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellowship.
The research paper, “Relativistic Reverberation in the Accretion Flow of a Tidal Disruption Event,” Erin Kara, Jon Miller, Chris Reynolds and Lixin Dai, was published in Nature on June 22, 2016.
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