Physics and Astronomy professor Sarah Gallagher has a front-row seat to infinity, and beyond.
The Western researcher’s specialty is quasars, those super-bright swirling masses of gas and dust powered by black holes billions of light years away.
Her training and her disposition have wired her to ponder the big picture.
“The nature of astronomy sort of lends itself to thinking about big things. Things that are billions of times the mass of the sun and millions of light years away. Because the numbers are just enormous, it does force you to just step back and have a different perspective,” she said.
Back here on Earth, Gallagher will translate that love of a good challenge into her new role as director of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space).
More than 60 Western researchers, from virtually every faculty, have Western Space affiliation.
Their work includes studying craters or the signatures of life on Mars, Earth or the Moon; meteors, the orbits of asteroids; space law; engineered satellites and exploration drones; geology and energy and dark matter; human health in space; and environmental and atmospheric science.
“I think the opportunity when you have an institute is to really bring people together, who either have common techniques or a common goal that requires expertise from a lot of different domains,” she said.
Together, they can leverage individual strengths, techniques and technology to help solve their own and each others’ research problems.
Gallagher said she would like to build on Western’s strengths in space research; build capacity in Earth and atmospheric observations; tap into more big-data analysis; and continue to work with governments on solving big, universal problems.
Making ‘invisible’ science visible
“It’s really valuable to understand the larger context in which we’re doing this. There’s so much science activity that undergirds a lot of what we take for granted – and to some extent that science activity is invisible,” she said.
“We pick up our phone, we get a weather forecast and where does that come from? That comes from data that’s generated by satellites and ground weather stations, a lot of it provided for free by multiple governments. Then we have scientists taking that data, plugging it into models to develop a forecast and supercomputers that generate forecasts. There’s the data, the models, the interpretation. And then it just comes out as a number and a little symbol on our phone. But there’s all this science happening under the hood.”
Gallagher is a rising star in understanding the high-speed winds – so powerful they can influence entire galaxies – that emanate from quasars, supermassive black holes surrounded by a glowing disk of gas living in the centre of galaxies.
Vision for Canadian space exploration
Gallagher is also a science advisor to the president at the Canadian Space Agency and has authored more than 100 refereed papers that include data from 10 different space observatories.
She was an early member of two Chandra X-ray Observatory instrument teams and won one of the first NASA Spitzer Space Telescope Fellowships. She has been an expert reviewer for many space observatories, and on advisory committees for the Hubble Space Telescope and two space data archives.
Gallagher also co-wrote A Vision for Canadian Space Exploration, a white paper that presents a vision of a robust and dynamic ecosystem of space exploration development. She is leading the supermassive black hole science team for CASTOR, a proposed new Canadian-led space observatory that would image the sky at ultra-violet and blue-optical wavelengths.
Gallagher earned her PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from Penn State University, was a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Spitzer Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, before coming to Western in 2008.
As director, she succeeds Western Space’s acting director Gordon (Oz) Osinski, who also led the institute’s predecessor, the Centre for Planetary Space and Exploration.
Osinski said it’s been gratifying to watch students and faculty from all corners of campus come together over the years. “We are living in truly remarkable times in terms of the exploration of space and remote and challenging environments on Earth. It’s been an honour serving as the director of Western Space for the first couple of years and I can’t think of a better champion than Sarah to lead the institute.”
Gallagher lauded Osinski for his work. “It’s gotten off to a fantastic start within these first couple years of being an institute and certainly Oz will continue to be a leader in the institute. He’s already established several areas in which we are internationally recognized. Now we have an opportunity to add breadth to depth and to grow the institute.”