‘This might be my greatest achievement’ GCSU astrophysicist's idea among top for next NASA telescope

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S ome professors at Georgia College & State University go national with their research.

Dr. Arash Bodaghee.
Dr. Arash Bodaghee.
A few get global attention.

Others? They reach for the stars.

Like Georgia College’s astrophysicist Dr. Arash Bodaghee.

He first suggested what eventually became—after improvements from his science team—one of the winning proposals for using NASA’s next-generation space telescope.

That’s quite a mouthful. Let’s put it more simply:

His idea emerged among the top contenders.

On how to use the next telescope.

To be built by NASA.

And put into space.

From a little astrophysics group here at Georgia College, you know, competing against Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley—and who knows where else around the world—our little telescope, or at least our approach on how to program the project, has become one of the key scientific drivers of this mission.
– Dr. Arash Bodaghee

It's the latest stellar achievement of Bodaghee's 10-year career at Georgia College—a body of work you might call out of this world:

•    Bodaghee helped educate hundreds of local families on open-house nights at Herty Hall’s Pohl Observatory.
•    One of his students discovered a previously unknown luminous object, a quasar “a billion times the size of our sun”with the short name “IGR-12-346.”
•    In 2021, Bodaghee and this student created an interactive map—the first-of-its-kind—showing where neutron stars and black holes were born and how far they’ve moved.  
•    More recently, that same team measured the strength of a neutron star’s magnetic field for the first time. It joins a list of only 50 neutron stars with magnetic fields that have been measured. Bodaghee has now measured two of those, the other in 2016.

To explain his latest accomplishment, Bodaghee starts from the beginning. So we will too.

Two years ago, he signed up to be part of developing a “mission concept” for a new telescope, called Advanced X-ray Imaging Satellite (AXIS).

One of the first and largest telescopes into space was Hubble, which launched in 1990. On Christmas day 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope went up. It was three times larger, designed to view objects too distant or faint for Hubble to detect.

The newly-proposed AXIS will be 46 feet long with solar panels that extend 52 feet. Unlike the James Webb, which cost $10 billion, AXIS will “only” cost $500 million to $1 billion, Bodaghee said. But comparing the two telescopes is “not fair,” he added, because they operate on different wavelengths of light.

AXIS is the next version of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a smaller telescope receiving data from space since 1999 and sending it to Earth. Chandra transformed mankind’s understanding of the evolution of supermassive black holes.

AXIS will be for Chandra what James Webb was for Hubble.

The James Webb propelled science forward in the area of infrared astronomy.

AXIS will be a breakthrough for X-ray optics that are lightweight and able to produce even-higher resolution pictures from space. Its large optic mirrors and detectors will allow astronomists to see further with better clarity.

“It’s the next leap forward in X-ray astronomy,” Bodaghee said. “This is why AXIS is so amazing—because it’s a high-resolution X-ray telescope that’s going to see things current telescopes can’t see.”

As part of the original team of collaborators—about 200 scientists worldwide—Bodaghee submitted his idea on how to use the telescope and what its contribution to science should be.

It’s the next leap forward in X-ray astronomy. This is why AXIS is so amazing—because it’s a high-resolution X-ray telescope that’s going to see things current telescopes can’t see.
– Dr. Bodaghee
He participated in three separate telescope proposals submitted to NASA in November.

AXIS is Bodaghee’s favorite, “because it’s an amazing telescope if it ever gets built.” The other telescope proposals are designed for spectral and timing science, not high-resolution imaging.

Bodaghee has already given presentations on his proposal at the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

As a member of the AXIS Science Team focusing on compact objects and supernova remnants, Bodaghee will help create the first, large-scale, high-resolution X-ray map of the inner Milky Way. This is known as a Galactic Plane Survey (GPS). It requires a telescope with a wide field-of-view, since the galactic plane covers a large fraction of the sky. It also needs high resolution, since the galactic plane is the most crowded region.

In support of the GPS proposal, Bodaghee ran simulations of what the telescope might see by assuming a range of exposure times for different regions of the sky. These simulations relied on scripts written by the AXIS instruments and software team. In one example, he simulated a typical exposure for a crowded region of the galactic bulge. Detailed analysis of the image showed that all currently-known X-ray sources would be detected within a reasonably short exposure time. In addition, an equal number of faint X-ray sources would also be revealed for the first time.

The idea of a GPS was well received among the science team. With their suggestions and improvements, it became one of the leading proposals for AXIS and raised Bodaghee's status from one of hundreds of collaborators to one of 40 co-investigators.

AXIS mission management approved the team’s proposal, awarding it “6 million seconds of exposure time.” That’s about 20% of the telescope’s available time during its first year.

Working on this might be my greatest achievement.
– Dr. Bodaghee

“Because the GPS would deliver important science across different topics,” Bodaghee said, “it basically became the common theme for the entire program from our group, focusing on supernovae and compact objects.”

“Working on this might be my greatest achievement,” he said.

This also makes Georgia College the only university in the state with a co-investigator involved in the project.

“Not Georgia Tech, not UGA. It’s hard to believe,” Bodaghee said. “If the telescope launches, what it maps in the Milky Way—roughly 20% of all its available time—will be dedicated to my proposal. Wow. It’s big. It’s crazy. I guess our idea was a really good one. We’re in the big leagues.”

NASA will make its final decision for funding in October 2024.

As co-investigator, Bodaghee would act as a consultant as the telescope is being built at NASA, led by the University of Maryland. It would launch from “somewhere in the North Pacific” in about five years.

NASA would also fund Bodaghee’s research and any students who work with him on this project through 2030-’40.

It’s gonna be something wonderful. It’s something gigantic. It’ll be a dramatic improvement in performance—a leap ahead in science.
– Dr. Arash Bodaghee

AXIS would serve as a “transient alert module” allowing “real-time discovery” of explosive X-rays. These occur when objects like white dwarf and neutron stars form or collide.

It would also be able to alert the astronomical community within 10 minutes of detecting an explosion.

Existing X-ray telescopes don’t have the resolving power to pinpoint objects when they are faint or crowded too close together. Their images come out blurry, making it difficult to make scientific determinations.

Looking at a picture of the Milky Way today, there are some spots of light showing where Chandra charted. But much of space still looks very dark. There are a lot of gaps.

“Look how much is missing,” Bodaghee said. “We really haven’t adequately observed the region around the center of the Milky Way. We’ve barely observed the galactic plane. The telescope we currently have has a restricted field-of-view, so you can only see a small piece of sky at a time.”

“Our telescope will have a bigger field-of-view,” he said. “We can then map a large fraction of the Milky Way with better resolution, sharper images and higher sensitivity. We’ll be able to find objects that are too faint for our current instruments to detect.”

AXIS will be able to distinguish objects as separate points, detecting even the lowest light with precision.

Humanity will go from knowing about 100,000 points of light in space to several million.

“Imagine the science that can be done with a factor 10-100 increase,” Bodaghee said. “This would be a groundbreaking observatory for the X-ray community, the equivalent of what James Webb was for the optical/infrared community.”

With AXIS, we’re gonna see with almost-perfect clarity. Things we’ve never seen before.
– Dr. Arash Bodaghee