Claudia Cicone unravels the properties of galaxies and their evolution

"The favourite part of my job is the collection, reduction and analysis of observational data. I particularly enjoy the process of “cleaning” and exploring the data to reveal their hidden information."

woman with helmet

Associate Professor Claudia Cicone at APEX sub-millimter telescope. Credit: C. Cicone.

- My name is Claudia Cicone and I have been an associate professor at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics (ITA) since September 2019.

Before joining the University of Oslo, Dr. Cicone was a Marie Curie Fellow at the Observatory of Brera in Milan, which is part of the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics.

- As a Marie Curie fellow my work was strongly focused on research activities, but I was involved in smaller scale projects compared to now.

Dr. Cicone is now a junior faculty, currently supervising one PhD student and, very soon, two master students at ITA.

- Right now I spend most of my days preparing the lectures for the course that will start in September 2020 (AST2210, a bachelor level course), working on several research projects, and supervising.

Unravelling the formation and evolution of galaxies

Cicone's research field is called Observational Extragalactic Astrophysics. In particular, she studies the gas reservoirs in galaxies, and how galaxy formation and evolution occur across cosmic times.

–  I investigate how the cold gas, which is the material out of which new stars form, responds to violent processes that take place in galaxies, such as accreting super massive black holes, intense episodes of star formation and supernovae explosions, and galaxy collisions (known as ‘galaxy mergers’).

Image may contain: Sky, Space, Science, Nebula, Astronomical object.
Illustration of the physical phenomena taking places in galaxies, object of Dr. Claudia Cicone's research.

– One of the most spectacular consequences of such mechanisms is the formation of galactic outflows (or winds) that can reach speeds of thousands of km/s and can carry enormous amounts of gas far from the central regions of galaxies, explains Cicone.

By studying the properties of these outflows, she aims at answering very basic questions which help understanding their role, such as: How much gas do they carry? How far do they extend? What is their shape (and can astronomers model it)? What is the fate of the outflowing material? How long do they last? Do their properties change with time/space?  

To do so, Dr. Cicone uses observations at sub-millimetre and millimetre wavelengths (intermediate between the radio and the infrared bands), which are the only way to capture the radiation emitted by cold and dense gas in the Universe. 

Challenges and satisfactions in Extragalactic Astronomy

– The observations that I need for my research are very challenging to design and obtain, and this applies to most of the research done in the field of extragalactic astronomy.

Obtaining observing time at international telescopes that are suited for extragalactic observations is very competitive, where one in ten proposal is accepted. For these reasons, designing an observational experiment usually requires a lot of work, and much calculation.

– You literally need to predict what you are going to find, and you need to plan in advance how long the observation needs to last in order to reach your scientific goal, she adds.

Woman in fornt of a radio telescope in the Atacama desert
Dr. Claudia Cicone standing in front of the 12 metre dish APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment. Photo: C. Cicone.

– What do you like most of your research?

– The favourite part of my job is the collection, reduction and analysis of observational data. I particularly enjoy the process of “cleaning” and exploring the data to reveal their hidden information, and, especially if it is an unexpected new result, thinking about a reasonable explanation for it.

– When I am lucky enough, I get to collect the data myself at astronomical sub-millimetre observatories which are located in extremely remote and fascinating places such as the Atacama desert in Chile, confesses Cicone. 

It happens to observe a very faint signature of some potentially very interesting result, but the quality of the data is usually not enough to obtain an unambiguous interpretation, which can be quite frustrating. But this is also why it is so exciting to work in this field, we are always doing something that has never been done before.

The observational signature of the galactic outflows that Cicone aims at studying is usually very faint and hard to capture, and it requires very long exposures even with the largest telescopes on Earth.

– Sometimes the atmospheric conditions (the weather) do not cooperate, and the quality of the data is not as good as expected, she tells.

Observations at sub-millimetre wavelengths require a very dry atmosphere, and these conditions are met only for a small fraction of the year, even in the Atacama desert which is the driest place on Earth.

The Universe through big telescopes 

Most of the research projects Dr. Cicone carries out are small-scale international projects, which make use of data from the most advanced sub-millimetre and radio telescopes in the world, such as ALMA, NOEMA, APEX, and VLA.

- Another big project I am involved is MOONS, a new instrument that will be installed on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 2022, which will be able to observe several hundreds thousands of distant galaxies in just a few years, giving us precious information about the processes that control the formation and evolution of galaxies across cosmic times. 

Recently Dr. Cicone and a team of international collaborators have been granted 3.5 million euros by the European commission under the Horizon2020 research and innovation program to start the design study for AtLAST, “Towards an Atacama Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope”. AtLAST will be the world's largest sub-millimetre observatory powered by renewable energy.

Tags: Astrophysics, extragalactic astronomy, Observations
Published May 14, 2020 3:19 PM - Last modified Aug. 7, 2020 11:54 AM