West Virginia University physicists are helping NASA measure light from distant stars and involving local high school science teachers in the process.

Mikel Holcomb, associate professor in the Eberly College Department of Physics and Astronomy, said she expects her team’s research into photon detector technologies to influence NASA missions, including the possible 2030 launch of the far-IR Probe as well as the development of technology for the Great Observatories — four observatories, floating in space, that conduct astronomical studies over visible, gamma-ray, X-ray and infrared wavelengths.

Holcomb’s colleagues, physics faculty members Alan BristowMatthew Johnson and Aldo Romero, are also closely involved in the research, which focuses on the introduction of impurities into the material of a superconductor.

By supporting endeavors like the high-altitude balloon mission Experiment for Cryogenic Large-Aperture Intensity Mapping, their work may deepen our understanding of the formation of stars. While NASA has detector technology with sufficient sensitivity for the EXCLAIM mission, Holcomb said her team’s study of fabrication processes has “already started to provide direct and surprising answers that could improve the detector technology for next-generation, space-based integrated spectrometer missions.”

Detectors are tools that measure individual photons, or packets of light, in different ways, including by converting the photons into heat. Photons measured in these ways can teach astronomers about the size, age and motion of galactic objects and may be produced by “anything from an X-ray to an infrared emitter,” Holcomb said, emphasizing that the detectors must be “finely tuned to deliver maximal sensitivity for the specific photon source.” 

Her team’s work supports that fine-tuning by investigating why variations between critical temperature and superconductor resistance are occurring for different materials and devices, and why NASA is seeing unexpected instabilities when adding a dopant, or impurity, into the superconductor in order to change the critical temperature.

The study, titled “Surface States and Doping in Aluminum Prototypes for NASA Detector Development” and funded by a $750,000 grant from NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, doesn’t just focus on signals from distant galaxies. Much closer to home, two undergraduate students from two West Virginia historically Black colleges and universities will join Holcomb’s team, contributing to research and learning competitive, cutting-edge skills such as X-ray photoemission spectroscopy, X-ray absorption spectroscopy and ultrafast optics.

The project also seeks to change the local landscape of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in West Virginia by working directly with teachers to develop lesson plans using the data generated by Holcomb’s research. Through a collaboration with the WVU Center for Excellence in STEM Education, local high-school science teachers will participate in CodeWV, a professional learning program focusing on curriculum development and software skills. Participating teachers will work with Holcomb’s team on developing curriculum for their students around her research.

“These teachers will return to their classrooms with new knowledge of contemporary and highly visible applications of science to NASA missions,” Holcomb said, “and the finalized materials will be provided to teachers throughout West Virginia, as well as across the 52 NASA Space Grant Consortiums.”

According to Vision 2025, the most recent update of West Virginia’s science and technology plan, 60% of adults will need a two-year or four-year degree by 2030, while only 31% of adult West Virginians hold such a degree. Nationally, STEM occupations are projected to grow twice as fast as occupations overall over the next decade.

“Kids need to be inspired and supported to enter and persist through STEM degree programs,” Holcomb said, “and no government agency has the cachet with young students that NASA has.”