Student Studies the Stars

Matt Hankins, a member of the UCA Honors College, has been staring at stars near the end of their lives; however, his work has taken place at Cornell University and not at a Hollywood retirement home. Matt, a senior physics student, has been an intern in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program matches highly skilled and motivated undergraduates with cutting edge research projects at other universities. Matt was accepted to work in the Astronomy Department at Cornell with Professor Terry Herter, Principle Investigator on the FORCAST (Faint Object InfRared Camera) instrument, a mid-infrared camera that is set to be commissioned later this year.

Matt’s internshiMatt Hankinsp was part of larger NASA mission known as the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) project, which seeks to observe wavelengths of light from stars and other objects that penetrate the atmosphere. SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747, which flies at an altitude of 40,000 feet, higher than commercial flights, in order to detect wavelengths that would otherwise be absorbed by water vapor and other molecules in the atmosphere. Once FORCAST is permanently installed on SOFIA, researchers will be able to see the thermal heating of dust by stars and other nearby objects in locations that were previously unobservable, like the Galactic Center Region. Much is yet to be understood about the many unique astral objects in the Galactic Center, and their project aims to uncover cause-and-effect relationships among its objects and features, including the supermassive black hole candidate at the center of the galaxy.

Matt’s research has been focused on studying a group of very bright mid-infrared sources that are part of a stellar cluster in the Galactic Center. These objects, known as the Quintuplet Proper Members, are evolved stars which are nearing the end of their lives. These high mass objects undergo phases in which they blow off outer layers from their stellar atmosphere that cool and condense to form nebula. Matt said, “Studying nebulae allows us to see different morphologies in the objects, which can tell us something about stars that are forming them.”

In describing the scope of the research, he said, “In the grand scheme of things our work is just a small piece of the puzzle in understanding the history of stellar formation in the Galactic Center Region. However, combining this knowledge with other results, we hope to be able to understand what makes the environment of the Galactic Center so special. Some galaxies have very active stellar formation in their central region; however, it’s not currently understood why some do and some don’t. Studying massive clusters in our own galaxy may provide clues to this mystery.”

Matt is a straight-A student, who has been active in scholarship and service. His senior honors thesis is on archeoastronomy under the supervision of Dr. Debra Burris in the Department of Physics. He has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and he has served as student vice-president of the Southern Regional Honors Council. Matt, who will graduate from UCA in May, is the son of Henry and Beckie Hankins of Russellville.