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Penn State Professor Given Top Astrophysics Award

The largest professional organization of astronomers in the country has recognized one of Penn State’s own.

W. Neil Brandt, the Verne. M Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the university, was given the 2016 Bruno Rossi Prize.

The award is handed out each year by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Brandt’s research in detecting x-ray signals at vast distances in the universe at NASA’s Chandra Observatory earned him the prestigious recognition. According to a press release from Penn State, the research “has produced the most sensitive cosmological x-ray surveys of the universe to date.” This research has provided much-needed insight into supermassive black holes and how they affect their host galaxies.

“These advances have come from more than 16 years of work by a superb and large team,” Brandt said. “It has been an honor to work with the members of this team and to see the broader astrophysics community actively making Chandra Deep Fields discoveries.”

The Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched in 1999 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, the same shuttle that later disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana during its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. The observatory can see x-ray sources that are 100 times fainter than any telescope before it, and its position outside of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to see x-rays that are blocked from a telescope based on Earth.

Last January, an x-ray flare 400 times brighter than usual was observed — a record-setting flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers believe that the flare was caused by an asteroid breaking apart while falling into the black hole.

Brandt made sure to mention that his research was only made possible by help from NASA and the team for its Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS), which is on the Chandra observatory. The principle investigator for that team is Gordon Garmire, the Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. Garmire retired after 30 years of service at the university in 2010, and now works as the head of NASA’s ACIS team.

“My ability at Penn State to get involved with the Chandra Deep Fields at an early stage came from my access to the ACIS team’s data,” Brandt said. “I expect that these fields will remain a treasure trove of discovery in the coming decades, serving as a long-lasting legacy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory.”

The Bruno Rossi Prize’s namesake is Italian professor and experimental physicist Bruno Rossi, who made major contributions to the study of cosmic rays. He pioneered x-ray astronomy in the 1960s and much of his groundbreaking work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before his retirement in 1970. Rossi died in 1993 at his home in Cambridge, Mass.

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