Experiential learning encompasses any activity in which a student is actively engaged in their education inside or outside of the classroom. At Trinity, experiential learning includes undergraduate research opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, volunteer experiences, internships, study abroad opportunities, and more.

Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light

By Paige Roth

What’s going on in the galaxy? Most of us ask the question while stargazing or watching a Discovery Channel special. At Trinity, physics and theatre double major Dallas Akins works with advisor, physics and astronomy professor David Hough, to answer this fundamental question.

Specifically, their research examines quasar jets—small young galaxies. “Before the Milky Way galaxy ‘grew up’ it was just a clump of dust and stars yet to be spread out into a spiral or disk,” explained Akins. Just like planets orbit the sun, every galaxy, including our own, has a black hole at its center. The black hole sucks up gas and particles. Some particles are then shot out of the black hole at the speed of light, producing long jets. The jet ejected from a black hole forms a quasar that can extend a million light-years or more into intergalactic space.

An artistic rendering of quasar jets ejecting from the black hole. The image shows the dense cluster of dust and stars that block the black hole from our view.  Additionally, you can see the hot glow at the center due to heat and energy particles that are fated to plummet into the singularity of the black hole. Image credit: NASA/ ESA
Dallas Akins, Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light

For over 30 years, Hough has tracked the movement of a particular quasar. Because quasar jets are traveling millions of light years, one must observe them over a long period of time to track movement and changes. Hough believes the quasar might be a binary black hole system; however, he recently acquired new higher resolution data and asked Akins to form his own hypothesis so the team can compare notes.
Quasar Jets, Dallas Akins, Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light
Akins shows analyzed images of how the quasar evolved over time.

Gathering data with the detail required to track quasar jet speed requires a telescope that “sees” 60,000 times better than our naked eye. To produce such an image requires a telescope the size of the earth. This giant telescope, made up of telescopes throughout the earth, uses a computer program to stitch together images from around the globe to render one image. Researchers, like Akins, use these images to explore changes in the galaxy.

Trinity University Marrs McLean Observatory, Researching Faster Than the Speed of Light
Trinity University Marrs McLean Observatory

Trinity University Marrs McLean Observatory, Researching Faster Than The Speed of Light
A student takes a peak through the telescope housed in the university observatory.
Quasar jets travel at super luminal speeds, which Akins and Hough calculated to be 0.998 times the speed of light. Super luminal speeds are an illusion resulting from the high speed particles shooting towards us at relatively close angles--Hough and Akins believe the angle to be between 7 and 15 degrees from our line of sight. With this data, Akins and Hough can characterize the quasar jets and black holes that produce them. Akins can deduce the angles at which quasar jets eject from the black hole. A change in these angles overtime indicates whether or not the black hole is rotating and moving and helps scientists characterize the properties of these infant galaxies.

To learn more about the physics and astronomy department at Trinity, click here.


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