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Research Roundup

Students test components of a research project at the beach.

Faculty members and students at the University of North Florida – in virtually all disciplines – are conducting research in hopes of discovering useful knowledge and finding answers. Here are a few questions that researchers hope to answer.


Vehicles explore the surface of Mars and the depths of the ocean, so why not our shallow coastal waters?


For his first job during college, William Dally worked in what he calls the surf zone – the area from the shoreline up to an ocean depth of 25 feet – placing rods to gather scientific data. Battered by the waves, the 20-year-old civil engineering major thought there must be a better way.


Now an associate professor of civil engineering at UNF, with a master’s in coastal engineering and a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics, Dally is hard at work creating what he imagined years ago: a vehicle he calls the Surf Rover.


Dally’s project is being funded by a prestigious Major Research Instrumentation grant that he was awarded in 2015 from the National Science Foundation. Though the Surf Rover is a work in progress, a complete model scaled to one-quarter the actual size shows a creation that looks part dune buggy and part amphibious crawler, with tank tracks that will allow it to move underwater along the ocean floor.


“When it’s complete, it will be the only one if its kind,” Dally said. “Others have tried and failed. The biggest obstacle is the power requirement. We will be using a diesel engine that will breathe through a tall snorkel.” He explained that other engineers have tried electric cords, which are limiting, or batteries, which are heavy and have to be replaced often because they quickly lose power.


Dally and the students working with him already have designed the Surf Rover to hand the many challenges of the beach environment: soft sand, steep slopes, high waves and strong currents. They are now wrestling with minimizing drag on the tall snorkel and keeping the engine cool until it submerges in the water. Made from aluminum and stainless steel, the vehicle will weigh more than 3,000 pounds and measure 16 feet wide and 22 feet long, yet its folding design allows for it to be transported on a modified boat trailer.


Dally expects to have the Surf Rover ready to be tested in the water next year and completed by mid 2019. He sees many uses for the metal workhouse. “Its primary job will be near-shore surveying, determining how the beach changes during storms and what happens to the sand eroded from the beach,” he said. “But there may also be a demand in the hydrographic surveying industry, which no longer uses swimmers to go out in the water or boats to come close to shore due to recent accidents.”


From the same safety reasons, Dally said the Navy might be interested in using the Surf Rover, rather than divers, to gather information on what’s beneath the waves when it needs to build a causeway for a landing or a rescue operation.


“I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time,” Dally said. “It’s amazing to me that we have vehicles roving surfaces out in space, but we have nothing to help us routinely collect data and mark observations in the surf zone on Earth.”


Cosmic rays race through space and crash into the Earth’s atmosphere, but where do they originate?


Our universe contains many marvels that challenge scientists who are seeking explanations. From dark matter to black holes, complicated mysteries remain. Those who study the cosmos – in an effort to understand its phenomena – keep adding to the knowledge base, one discovery at a time.


Dr. John Hewitt, astrophysicist and assistant professor of physics at UNF, is one of the scientific explorers making great strides in solving these puzzles. His most recent research involves cosmic rays, which are highly charged subatomic particles. Considered the fast moving matter in space, cosmic rays soar at near speed of light.


“Physicists and astronomers have known about cosmic rays for 100 years, yet their origins have not been proven,” Hewitt said. “The scientific consensus is that some cosmic rays are produced when massive stars in our galaxy explode, but the question of how many and from which specific sources has not been answered.”


Part of the difficulty is that cosmic rays do not travel on a straight path that can be traced; the particles carry an electric charge, so their movement is scrambled by the galaxy’s magnetic fields. Their path would look like something like a “galactic pinball game,” Hewitt said.


To overcome this obstacle, scientists use an indirect approach: tracking gamma rays, created when cosmic rays are first accelerated and collide with gases in space. As a result, gamma rays serve as fingerprints, indicating the otherwise untraceable cosmic rays were actually there, too. And because gamma rays travel in straight lines, scientists can determine a point of origin.


“Our research has detected several star clusters emitting gamma rays that previously had not been seen,” Hewitt said. “I haven’t proven that the star clusters are responsible for all the galaxy’s cosmic rays, but I’ve proven that they’re responsible for some of them.”


Hewitt and other scientists are using data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in 2008. Fermi maps the sky every few hours offering a spectacular view to the high-energy happenings of the universe.


“The data from the Fermi telescope has been extremely helpful in tracking gamma rays,” Hewitt said. “Fermi has found more than 4,000 sources of gamma rays in our galaxy, so many things we were not expecting to be sources of cosmic rays have shown up.”


Now that Hewitt has evidence of gamma rays coming from specific star clusters, he’s trying to use those findings to estimate the quantity of cosmic rays produced, a difficult process that requires creating models and testing assumptions.


“Fundamentally, we’re just trying to explain our universe,” Hewitt said. “The more we understand, the more we will be able to apply that knowledge in practical ways.”