Professor Brings Rare Astrophysics Research Opportunities to Eagles
As a young girl, Dr. Pragati Pradhan used to point out different planets and constellations in the night sky to her mother from their terrace in Darjeeling, India, high up in the Himalayas.
“I could see infinitesimal stars in the night sky,” Pradhan said, “and the night sky has the power to evoke a sense of childlike wonder. The vastness of space, and the unknown planets and galaxies, bring in a sense of curiosity to explore beyond our planet.”
Her fascination with the stars has endured, and it is what led her to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott Campus in fall 2022, where she currently serves as an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy. Previously, she conducted postdoctoral research at MIT; today, she leads students in deep exploration of the composition of massive stars that emit particles at speeds of about 2,000 kilometers per second — known as stellar winds — by studying the high-energy, or X-ray, light the winds create when they collide with winds from another companion star.
Supported by $500,000 in funding from various agencies, Pradhan is participating in a wide range of satellite-based observation and measurement with NASA, as well as other space organizations around the globe, and she and her students are able to gather and analyze data that provides information on how the universe looks "through X-ray eyes," she said.
In a recent research proposal, Pradhan described this potential.
“Stellar winds are responsible for spreading all matter throughout the universe, including the matter used to create the Earth and all the life contained here. It is imperative we learn more about the stellar winds and their effect on stellar objects throughout the universe to understand the true beginnings of life,” the proposal reads. “With this study, we can characterize the matter that makes up most of the universe, and therefore, this project holds larger astrophysical relevance, since it explains how ‘we are all made of stardust.’”
Pradhan’s most recent research collaboration is with XRISM (pronounced “crism”), a satellite X-ray observatory project run by NASA and the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, with participation by the European Space Agency.
Pradhan said the XRISM mission will employ “the best technology that we have for doing X-ray spectroscopy so it can do some unique science.”
The satellite was launched on Sept. 6.
“Whenever a satellite is launched, the team decides which astronomical sources to look at, and what science can be done. This was a one-of-a-kind solicitation from NASA, in conjunction with JAXA, allowing other scientists like me to work on the first data with XRISM. I’ll get to see the data from one of the best X-ray observatories firsthand, and then I get to work on it,” Pradhan said, adding, “It’s an exciting time for me as a scientist and as a professor. Not many students — especially undergraduates — in the United States can say that they have experience working with XRISM and other international collaborations.”
Pradhan has developed a new course for Embry-Riddle’s Prescott Campus. Focused on high-energy astrophysics, it will premier this fall.
Referring to the new course, and to Pradhan's work in general, Dr. Brennan Hughey, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said, "Pragati brings a lot to our department. Her expertise in X-ray astronomy expands on and complements our previously existing astronomy and astrophysics research. She's currently preparing a new junior-level class in high-energy astrophysics to round out our course offerings and is already working with quite a few research students. Her can-do approach to research, teaching and service makes her a great role model for our students. It also doesn't hurt that she has, by my count, the greatest number of active grants of anybody on campus."
With Pradhan’s mentorship, Tristen Sextro (one among her five student researchers), a senior double-majoring in Astronomy and Software Engineering, is using research from NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) data to research the stellar wind of a celestial body named GX 1+4. Pradhan said she and her student researchers will most likely also use observations of GX 1+4 from NASA’s Chandra Xray Observatory and will propose observing the same source with XRISM in the next proposal solicitation.
Sextro said the research he is doing was funded by Embry-Riddle’s Undergraduate Research Institute and NASA.
“When we got the funding, Dr. Pradhan gave me the GX 1+4 project to work on, beginning with the NICER data. This started my journey into the world of high-energy astrophysics,” he said. “This work will be immensely helpful as I move into a career, as I hope to continue work similar to this in graduate school.”
After graduate school, Sextro hopes to combine what he’s learning through his research with software engineering and to work on software development in the astrophysics field.
Meanwhile, Pradhan said that she and her mother continue to gaze at the night sky, which still makes them feel connected to one another, despite living on opposite ends of the Earth.