October 22, 2009

Washburn University awarded NASA research grant

Washburn University has been awarded a half-million dollar research grant from NASA, to support a project entitled Astrophysical Ionizing Photon Events and Primary Productivity of Earth's Oceans. The three-year grant will be led by Brian Thomas, assistant professor, physics and astronomy at Washburn, and includes collaborators Adrian Melott, professor, physics and astronomy, University of Kansas, and Patrick Neale, senior scientist, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md.

The purpose of the project is to greatly improve understanding of the effects on marine phytoplankton when the Earth receives a blast of radiation from astrophysical events such as supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. Marine phytoplankton are single-celled plants that live in the ocean. These organisms are the base of the food chain in the oceans, and also produce half the world’s oxygen. Previous studies by Thomas and collaborators have shown that these organisms are likely to be hard-hit by ultraviolet light from the Sun after the Earth’s ozone layer is depleted by radiation from rare, but intense, events such as the explosion of massive stars outside our own solar system.

This project will improve understanding of these effects and explore how dangerous a broad range of such events would be for life on Earth. In addition, the project will help in understanding how phytoplankton are affected by current ozone depletion, such as under the Antarctic ozone hole.

For more information, contact the Washburn physics and astronomy department at (785) 670-2141.

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