News | July 02, 2020

College of Arts and SciencesFaculty and StaffNewsResearch

Star professor lands funding to lead NASA design study

"FGCU is in good company,” says Derek Buzasi, Whitaker Eminent Scholar

Dr. Derek Buzasi has always been one to shoot for the stars, and now he’s launching Florida Gulf Coast University itself to greater heights through that lifelong mission.

Buzasi is principal investigator in a small-satellite study focused on the internal structure of massive stars that has been selected for funding as part of NASA’s Astrophysics Science SmallSat Studies Program. One of eight proposals selected from 32 submitted, the project carries astronomical significance for FGCU when you run down a list of institutional winners that includes teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California Irvine, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and NASA itself.

“You can see that FGCU is in good company,” said Buzasi, the Whitaker Eminent Scholar in FGCU’s Department of Chemistry and Physics since 2012. “Certainly, we are the only non-research university ever to win a competition for this program.”

Photo shows FGCU professor Derek Buzasi
“We are the only non-research university ever to win a competition for this program,” says Whitaker Eminent Scholar Derek Buzasi. Photo: James Greco/FGCU

Buzasi is hardly a stranger to advanced space study. He has published more than 170 papers and has worked on a variety of major instrument teams, including as detector scientist for the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, part of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most recent upgrade; and as principal investigator for the reboot of the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer satellite. He also has served on the Science Team for NASA’s planet-finding Kepler mission and on NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.

Collaborating with Drs. Oswald Siegmund of the University of California Berkeley and Curt Cutler of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Buzasi and his cohorts retooled an unsuccessful first attempt at the pre-Phase A design study for a small satellite (cost cap of $35 million) they submitted a few years ago, based on feedback they received. “We are also collaborating with the JPL Team-Xc design team to help with the design,” Buzasi said.

It should be noted that Siegmund, with whom Buzasi has worked previously, is senior space fellow at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory and 2020 winner of the SPIE George W. Goddard Award in Space and Airborne Optics.

“I’m happy to be working with Dr. Buzasi again, now on this novel project,” Siegmund said. “Since working with us at UC Berkeley and at NASA headquarters, Derek has been very proactive in trying to convince NASA to embark on this innovative implementation of small-scale satellite technology to achieve new science. I’m very enthusiastic to be a part of this effort and have great expectations for its future, and in particular the avenues for student involvement in this shorter turnaround time, mini-satellite endeavor.”

The mission name is MAGIC (Massive Star Asteroseismology Instrument Cubesat). “Based on our ‘straw-man’ design, the proposed instrument fits in a box about 40-by-30-by-20 centimeters, and the spacecraft is roughly twice that size, exclusive of the solar panel array,” Buzasi said. “It’s basically a single, small, refractive telescope feeding two separate, photon-counting imaging detectors.

“The science goal is to do asteroseismology (study stellar oscillations) in massive stars (three to 30 times the mass of the sun) in order to understand their internal structure,” said Buzasi, whose fascination with that science goes back more than two decades. “These stars are brighter in the near ultraviolet than at visible wavelengths, and the amplitudes of the oscillations are larger there as well, so we would observe them at two different wavelengths in the ultraviolet. While these stars have been observed in the UV before, it’s never been done over long time periods (months to years) at high-time resolution (seconds) and at two separate wavelengths — all of which we need in order to successfully do seismology for these stars.”

As Buzasi indicated, doing the study at UV wavelengths rather than in the visible is the difference between the MAGIC mission and previous studies. “That matters because these stars are brightest at those wavelengths, and their variability is also largest there.  By observing at two different UV wavelengths simultaneously, we will be able to better understand what we are seeing — how the stars are oscillating, how their shapes are changing — and not just what frequencies they are oscillating at.

“A sort of tactical advantage to observing these hot massive stars is that they are all young, because they don’t live very long,” Buzasi continued. “That means that they haven’t moved very far from where they were born in the galaxy, and that means they are clustered close together in the sky. That, in turn, means that we can observe bunches of them simultaneously rather than just one at a time.”

That might be getting, as Buzasi puts it, “way too far down in the weeds” for the average stargazer, but the significance of the study is that these massive stars “produce nearly all of the heavy elements in the galaxy, and because they have strong outflows and are the ones that end their lives as supernovae, those elements get well-mixed into their surroundings,” he said. “That means these are the stars that drive the evolution of the galaxy.”

Besides the prestige of one of its professors being principal investigator on a significant research project, FGCU also will benefit from funding in the award to support undergraduates as part of the study team, Buzasi said.

“Obviously, this is just a design study, and we are still a long way from an actual mission, but it is the first step along that trajectory,” he said. “We will spend about a year doing the study, and then I’ll have to do a public presentation to NASA headquarters as well as provide a formal design, cost study, etc. If that goes well, we will then write a proposal for the actual mission, and I’d anticipate learning the result of that in the 2023-24 timeframe, with a launch in maybe 2026-27 or so, assuming positive results along the way.”But as far as FGCU is concerned, Buzasi landing funding for a NASA-sponsored design study already amounts to “positive results.” When you have professors proficient enough to take you up and away to places you’ve never been before as an institution of higher education, transformative change can happen.