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You are here: Home Winter 2008 Observations From a Small Planet

Observations From a Small Planet

By Kevin Rayburn

UofL Astronomers Probe Stars to Understand Origins of Earth, Universe

When Wes Miller speaks of getting everywhere on foot or by bicycle instead of driving a car, or using a meager $15 worth of electricity a month during winter, he doesn't think of himself as an eccentric, extremist, or even a cheapskate.

Rather, he regards himself as a resident of what the late astronomer Carl Sagan called "an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe …"

showing off the telescope Insignificant though Earth may be, its like remains undiscovered in the universal vastness. And as far as Miller is concerned, humans have been too cavalier as its stewards.

"We've been living in a bubble of luxury and waste that won't last forever," Miller says. "We need to use less and be more efficient in our energy usage—even if it means having a slightly harder life."

Miller is an undergraduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in UofL's College of Arts & Sciences. Although mainly interested is studying how stars are born, he often thinks about and discusses the connections between astronomical, environmental, historical and sociological issues—just like his hero, Sagan.

And it has been that way since he attended Louisville's Bloom Elementary School a decade ago, when, as part of a Courier-Journal story on education, he was photographed reading a book about Albert Einstein.

A few years later, environmentalist Tom FitzGerald was coaching Miller in soccer and gave him a copy of the book, Billions and Billions, Sagan's last rumination on humanity's place in the cosmos.

Miller's interest in improving energy technology led briefly to mechanical engineering studies at UofL.

"But, after I had finished taking my required physics courses, I realized I didn't want to stop taking them. So, I changed departments."

After transferring to physics and astronomy, he continued to pursue energy-related research. He traveled to Eugene, Oregon, and San Diego as part of undergraduate research programs to study superconductivity and thin-film photovoltaics.

Because the latter project involved the study and usage of light, it was a natural tie-in to astronomy—and specifically star studies.

"It's amazing how much information you can get out of photons; light is like an encyclopedia of a star," says Karen Collins, an astronomy graduate student and colleague of Miller's.

It's a recurring theme when speaking to the small but enthusiastic band of faculty and student researchers who comprise UofL's physics and astronomy department: They don't just study stars, supernovae, galaxies and nebulae, but light itself.

Working under the tutelage of associate professor Gerard Williger, Miller soon found that he loved the department's close-knit "research group feeling." Thursday lunchtime pizza sessions laced with discussions of astronomy, as well as the occasional pickup football game, bring the group together even more.

"Dr. Williger looks to me and we all look to each other," Miller says. "This is a big field and everyone's work feeds off everyone else's. It's a very productive setup, with lots of hands-on opportunity."

As it happens, it's not too hard for Miller to put some of his Earth-friendly habits into practice. He lives in an apartment that's only a few minutes from the offices where he studies in the Natural Sciences Building on UofL's Belknap campus.

"I practically live here," Miller says. "I get here every day by 9 o'clock five days a week and some nights I'm here until 10."

Watcher in the Woods

A couple of hundred yards off the main road the pavement ends and gravel begins. Wild turkey shuffle through the brush and deer look and hesitate before darting across the rutted road. To the left is a stone-wall-enclosed pre-Civil War graveyard and large mossy outcroppings of rock lining the ravine down to the creek below.

A rusty barbed wire fence held up by poles leaning in all directions follows along each side of the road, a surviving fragment of a once vital Louisville-to-Brownsboro thoroughfare dating from the 1850s.

The surrounding woods make way to occasional clearings of tall grass and gently sloping farm fields where cattle graze.

After a couple of miles of bumpy driving, you reach a clearing and behold one of the Louisville area's best-kept secrets.

Deep within the 200-acre Horner Wildlife Refuge in Oldham County, Ky., stands an unexpected array of buildings—including three observatories, two domed—along with weather stations, birdfeeders and a main lodge. It is the Moore Observatory, a comprehensive astronomical compound on a well-groomed circular slice of turf surrounded by a wall of trees.

The university owns both the wildlife refuge and the observatory, which are 20 miles from the Belknap Campus. After the Horner family donated the land in the early 1960's, UofL acquired a telescope donated by the Louisville Astronomical Society. The society's founding member, Walter Lee Moore, was a longtime university mathematics professor who helped raise money to buy the instrument and used his optician skills to modify and improve it. A domed observatory to house the instrument was built and the site was dedicated in Moore's name in 1978. Moore died in 1989, and his original telescope has been replaced by an array of high-tech instruments.

Kielkopf directs the observatory, as he has from its beginning. An alumnus who has taught at UofL since 1969, the veteran physics professor and recipient of the 1997 UofL President's Award for outstanding research has been a key mover in the growth of astronomy studies at UofL.

"I was the only astronomer at the university for many years, but now the department has really grown," Kielkopf says.

However, Kielkopf is the only one of the department's 16 faculty members who makes frequent observatory visits—spending as many as 40 hours a week on day visits and nighttime observing.

His first order of business, ordinarily, is to unlock the door of the main lodge—where the computers and offices are housed—and pull out bags of seed to restock the bird feeders.

"I pay for the feed myself," he says in an easygoing voice while flashing a smile.

An Internet-linked camera pointed at one of the feeders has a worldwide audience.

"I often get email reminding me to put out more seed," he says.

Five minutes later, he reenters the building and passes a plaque commemorating the late Dr. Moore on the wall to the left and a modest but cozy living area to the right complete with couch, an efficiency kitchen, a dim lamp and shelves of astronomy books. The amenities povide for a night's observation and sleepover.

Down the hall, Kielkopf enters another space and turns on a battery of overhead fluorescents. Lining the walls in the unadorned room are long desks topped with new, powerful computers.

It is here that Kielkopf spends most of his time at Moore—not in the outlying buildings housing the array of telescopes.

"We can control telescopes and cameras remotely from the keyboard as well as open and rotate the domes," he explains.

telescope in a filed Students on Belknap campus or in area schools can do the same thing. Australian researchers who need sky views at higher latitude also can operate the observatory's 20-inch Dall Kirkham telescope.

Likewise, when it's daytime in Louisville, UofL researchers can gain views of the southern latitude skies during the Aussie night via fast Internet2 access and operating an identical 20-inch telescope propped nearly a half-mile up a mountain in a remote part of Queensland, Australia.

That's because UofL has an arrangement with the University of Southern Queensland to jointly operate the telescope there. UofL owns the small white dome and telescope perched on Mt. Kent—carbon copies of the ones at Moore Observatory.

Located 19 miles southwest of the town of Toowoomba in a rural area known as Cambooya Shire, the Mt. Kent observatory is not only in big sky country, but is considered a "dark sky" site as well.

That's not the case in Louisville.

"Because we are in a suburban area," Kielkopf says, "city light scatters from dust and moisture in the air and limits our ability to measure faint stars and galaxies.

"For that reason, " he adds, "we are developing the instruments at the observatory to precisely monitor relatively bright objects, and to analyze the spectrum of light—uses unaffected by urban light pollution.

Unaffected by such factors, the very same kind of telescope in Australia scans a far darker sky and "gives us two to four times more sensitivity," Kielkopf says.

Even when Kielkopf is not on site—back in his UofL office, for instance—he can see how things are going at both observatories in Oldham County and Australia by getting on the Internet and accessing cameras placed inside and outside the buildings.

UofL students use the observatories as part of training and lab work and for research that includes measurements of star rotation and spectroscopic analysis of nebulae.

But Kielkopf wants to make them increasingly accessible to school children, teachers and others outside the university.

That's why he and Brad Carter, an astronomer and senior lecturer in physics at the University of Southern Queensland, conceived an initiative called "A Digital Science Partnership for Southern Skies in the Classroom."

The NASA-funded program is a collaborative effort between UofL, Southern Queensland, and Northern Kentucky University to encourage onsite and distance-learning access to the Moore and Mt. Kent telescopes by students and faculty in Kentucky and Australia, among other aims. Educational tie-ins with the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium at UofL also are part of the mix.

"These telescopes are large compared to those usually available for educational use, and are well suited for selected faculty and graduate student research," he explains.

"We expect more K-12 teachers, students and anyone interested in informal education to take advantage of remote observing and video conferencing through Internet2 connectivity.

"It really advances the excitement of learning about the universe and engages the imagination when people can actually operate a telescope to view galaxies, supernovae, stars and comets—right there on their computer in the middle of the day."

The Sky's the Limit

Physics and astronomy department chair David Brown hails Kielkopf's persistence through the years in building the astronomy program at UofL.

"John has put in a lot of years and laid much of the groundwork for the programs and the observatories that we've built here," Brown says.

And Kielkopf was there through the lean years.

"We lost our Ph.D. in astronomy in the 1980s when the higher education authorities were cutting duplicate programs at universities," Brown says. The University of Kentucky retained its Ph.D. in physics and astronomy.

Although the UK program is larger, Brown says UofL's has grown and improved enough to justify reinstatement of its Ph.D.

"That's something we've been working on for years and are planning to resubmit for consideration, but it's a long process."

Brown cites the productivity of the department's 16 faculty as one selling point.

"We're one of the smallest departments in the college doing research, and yet our faculty earned $3.5 million in research grants this past fiscal year—and not all of the faculty members are researchers, so the per-faculty grant average is pretty high compared to other departments," he says.

One of the department's prominent new hires is planetary scientist, Tim Dowling, who is moving from his post as associate professor of mechanical engineering in UofL's Speed School of Engineering.

"I'd like us to get to around 20 faculty and increase the number of graduate students," Brown adds.

A good sign of success, Brown says, is that department enrollment is higher than ever.

Right now the department's general research concentrations are in astrophysics, atomic physics, condensed matter and high energy physics.

The primary faculty members engaged in astrophysics and astronomy research are Kielkopf as well as Gerard Williger, Lutz Haberzettl and James Lauroesch.

As Universal as Apple Pie

"To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

The ever-quotable Sagan said it, implying that planets and humans and everything else come from what he called "star stuff."

Even now, that "stuff" percolates inside colossal nurseries of tumult, where giant clouds swirl with gases and dust and radiation and gravitational forces. It is here where—billions of years after the universe's birth—stars and planets are being born.

The birth, life cycle and death of stars—as well as the way planets come to be—fascinates physics and astronomy graduate student Karen Collins.

"Even though scientists have discovered about 200 planets outside our solar system since 1995, we still don't know much about how they develop around stars; there are more questions than answers," she says.

Although still in pursuit of her master's and, eventually, doctoral degrees, Collins is an astronomer in everything but name.

Largely self-taught before she was accepted to UofL in 2005, the holder of electrical engineering degrees and co-founder of an electronics design and manufacturing company spent years immersing herself in the concepts of astrophysics.

"Like many children of the 1960s, I was fascinated by the Apollo program and have had space science and exploration fever ever since."

A merger of her Georgia-based firm with a larger company left her financially secured and freed at the mid-point of her life to succumb to that fever.

Now Collins travels to places such as the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico to study under noted NASA scientists including Carol Grady, with whom she has co-authored papers on young stars and the so-called "protoplanetary disks" that form around them.

Protoplanetary disks also are known as circumstellar disks because they form a circular pattern of dust and gases around stars.

However, circumstellar disks are far more massive—as big as entire solar systems. And it is inside them that planets can be formed. The dense disks also can hide companion stars.

Forces including gravity cause the dust and gases in the disk to fall onto the star in a process known as accretion, causing it to enlarge slightly even after it becomes a viable, hydrogen-burning star.

Eventually the accretion process stops and protoplanetary disk material can form into clumps and eventually merge to form planets. Gravity from the newly formed planet also can start an accretion process, causing disk material to enlarge the planet.

That might be what's happening inside a circumstellar disk Collins is studying around HD 100453, an isolated star only observable in the southern hemisphere. To study it, Collins and colleagues use imagery and spectroscopic data collected from the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit and other observatories.

HD 100453 is one of several so-called Herbig Ae/Be classified stars that interest Collins. This class of stars is so named based on their young ages (only a few million years old), brightness and tendency to be surrounded by circumstellar disks.

"It turns out this star we're looking at right now is the oldest known Herbig Ae/Be star," she says. "It's somewhere between 10 and 20 million years old."

The star has presented the researchers with a lot of perplexing questions.

"We want to learn when and why the accretion process—the process of material falling onto the star—stops," she explains.

"And so the question is: Why is there all this disk material that isn't falling onto the star anymore? One of the theories is that, very likely, a planet has formed and the material is now cut off from the star and some of the material is now falling onto it."

Collins and her collaborators also confirmed the presence of a much smaller companion star orbiting HD 100453, a discovery initially made in 2005 by Xuepeng Chen and a team from the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Using telescope data collected in 2003 and 2006, Collins and associates confirmed that the companion star was a "co-moving object, not just a background one.

"So they are probably bound together, the smaller one orbiting the larger one, and were likely born out of the same cloud and are probably the same age."

Because the brightness of the larger star obscured the smaller star, the latter was not discovered until many years later.

Using an occulting spot placed in the telescope—similar to ones used to observe the corona of the sun—scientists can blot out brighter objects to reveal dimmer ones.

Another clue that confirmed the presence of the smaller star was an excess of X-ray emissions of a type typical of smaller, cooler M-type stars, she explains.

It's Hard to Make Time With a Telescope

It was once true that astronomers spent a lot of time hunched over a viewfinder with one eyeball shut and the other placed against a glass lens to catch glimpses of heavenly phenomena.

But that's just not so anymore.

Today's telescopes mainly consist of cameras and other instruments that collect raw data and imagery filtered and processed to analyze light.

The idea of having to travel to an observatory has even been rendered somewhat archaic now that the Internet allows scientists to manipulate observatory instruments robotically from anywhere in the world.

"Now you submit a proposal to a committee justifying your study and then, if they accept it, you're entered into a queued system in which you wait, sometimes months or longer, for an assigned operator of the telescope to aim it at the part of the sky you're interested in to collect the data you want," Collins explains.

It's a system that Collins' faculty mentor, Gerard Williger, knows all too well.

"The bottom line is, that there are lots of scientists doing lots of studies who want lots of data from the too-few telescopes available," he says.

To address this problem, some universities have formed consortia to buy their own major observatories and share facilities.

Both Williger and department chair Brown say UofL's participation in such a partnership with other Kentucky universities is one idea worth exploring.

Meanwhile, Williger says existing partnerships, including those with Carol Grady of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, D.C.—which provides access to facilities such as Apache Point—are serving UofL astronomy researchers well.

Sometimes They ‘Dis' Star Trek

When he's not studying protoplanetary disks, Lyman-Alpha Blobs (gas clouds around distant galaxies) and large quasar groups (herds of giant black holes with hot accretion disks), Williger does what all physics and astronomy faculty members are expected to do: teach courses.

williger and telescope In one introductory level course, Williger has the daunting task of covering the history of the cosmos from the Big Bang to today—in 15 weeks.

"I do things to keep it interesting for the students and to make sure everyone is participating," he says. When he wants to see if students understand a point, he polls the class with ‘clickers' that register responses that are tallied into his computer.

"One thing I like to do is ask the class is if they prefer Star Trek, the original series, or the later ones such as The Next Generation, or Voyager.

"Sadly, half the class answered that they don't even watch Star Trek."

Keeping astronomy concepts interesting is one reason why Williger and Kielkopf teach undergraduate courses in the Gheens Science Center and Rauch Planetarium.

Seeing constellations and other space imagery offers students "immersive visualization" that conveys to them the awesome splendor of the cosmos, Kielkopf says.

"We use the tools we have, and the planetarium is a great one. We're lucky to have something like it, considering that many other universities do not. I think it's one educational advantage we offer."

The Light of a Trillion Suns

Looking at stars, the eye can see light that began a journey thousands of years ago.

And with the best telescopes, astronomers such as Williger have the privilege of peering at distant galaxies that began close to the beginning to time.

"Some of the large quasar groups that I observe and study can be seen back to when the universe was only a few hundred million years old, and that's billions of years ago," he says.

Williger is considered a leading researcher of large quasar groups, a phenomenon only recently discovered.

His expertise in these and other cosmic events stem from previous studies Williger did at NASA and at other venues such as the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Quasars are galaxies with extremely bright cores intensified by interaction with black holes, dense objects with gravity so strong that even light cannot escape them.

Quasar clusters comprise large quasar groups. The biggest known large quasar group contains 18 quasars and is 600 million light years across. One quasar can shine with the light of a trillion suns.

Examining ultraviolet, infrared and other data collected from telescopes in Chile, Arizona and Hawaii, Williger and his international colleagues try to make sense of these massive, mysterious events.

"There are all kinds of things we want to learn: How far away are these things, how old, and how large? And what pulled these groups together? They're too massive to be pulled together by gravity, so what did? There are tons of questions."

Astronomy for National Defense

Kielkopf is mentoring graduate student, Jeff Hay, in a study of how the atmosphere distorts observable objects.

To do this, the researchers will use a new state-of-the-art, 24-inch, Ritchie-Chretien telescope—the largest at the Moore Observatory, and only one of two of that size in Kentucky—in tandem with a newly acquired high-speed camera.

Waves in the atmosphere can cause objects to fluctuate in appearance. Kielkopf says the objective is to find a way to "freeze" in time an optimal image of a star or other object for maximum clarity.

"We want to separate the effects of Earth's atmosphere from the signature of the object we are looking at," Kielkopf says.

In addition to improving the study of stars, the technology could help national defense.

"You need to be able to identify quickly whether something is a friend or foe, so a more accurate system of identifying the signature of something like a missile by taking away the atmospheric distortions could be useful in defensive systems," he adds.

The study is funded by the Department of Defense, which is developing smart sensors for intelligence gathering and defense.

Another of Kielkopf's students, Jeremy Huber, is using the big telescope at Moore to measure visible and infrared light from the Rosette Nebula to understand how stars form from interstellar gas and dust.

Stars of the Future

Wes Miller powers up his laptop and shows a visitor the photographs he took recently while doing research at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

"In what other field can an undergraduate work with instrumentation this advanced and colleagues as respected?" he asks.

Astronomy is such a wide-open field, he adds, that undergraduates can make startling discoveries.

Like Karen Collins, Miller is interested in the earliest stages of star formation.

"I'm looking at pre-main sequence stars, particularly those undergoing eruptions of light like that of FU Orionis [stars] of the Orion Nebula," he says.

The Orion Nebula, 1,500 light years away, is the closest star-factory to Earth.

Miller finds himself drawn to the violent events that mark young stars, such as the massive columns of gas shooting off them.

After publishing his initial findings, Miller says he plans to continue his studies elsewhere.

"I think the department hopes I go somewhere else like Europe," Miller says, "because they understand the value of travel and of learning with the world's best.

"With astronomy, like everything else, we're all in this together"

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