Lowell astronomer, project team among last recipients of Keck Interferometer time

January 20, 2012

Flagstaff, Ariz. — A Lowell Observatory-led research team recently received one full night of observing time with the Keck Interferometer, a near-infrared instrument that combines the largest pair of telescopes in the world. Principal investigator Dr. Gerard van Belle of Lowell Observatory says this is the last call for proposals on the instrument, as it will soon be retired.

With this time, the team will measure the sizes of five to 10 faint, low-mass stars to determine their temperatures and check agreement with predicted sizes from stellar modeling, according to Dr. van Belle. “The twin monster telescopes of the Keck Observatory are necessary for this study,” he explains. The team will make these measurements by using the Keck Interferometer instrument, which joins each of the 10 meter (33 foot) telescopes to achieve the equivalent resolution of a single 85 meter (279 foot) telescope. Other interferometers have similar resolving power, but with smaller individual telescopes, cannot collect enough light to detect these faint stars. “Not only are these targets small – about the apparent size of a grape, a thousand miles away – they’re many times fainter than what the next-best telescope can do.”

“These targets are particularly interesting to learn about, because they’re the easiest candidates to find hosting the smaller, nearby Earth-sized planets,” says Dr. van Belle. The small size of these stars increases the size of signals caused by the influence of planets orbiting them.

For the observing time in early February, Dr. van Belle will be joined at Keck headquarters on Hawaii’s Big Island by co-investigators Dr. Kaspar von Braun of Caltech, and Dr. Tabetha Boyajian of Georgia State University.

The Keck Interferometer is slated for retirement in mid-2012, since it has completed its primary mission of observing zodiacal dust shells enshrouding nearby stars. The ongoing work of the individual Keck telescopes will continue, however, including its planet detection program. Lowell’s Dr. Lisa Prato and Dr. Travis Barman utilize the individual Keck telescopes for their research.

NASA’s share of Keck Observatory time is highly competitive, with an oversubscription ratio of 4 to 1.

Dr. van Belle was one of the original instrument architects on the Keck Interferometer, participating in its development and commissioning from 1996 to 2003 while at NASA JPL.

Chuck Wendt, Lowell Observatory, (928) 233-3201, cwendt[at]lowell[dot]edu

About Lowell Observatory
Lowell Observatory is a private, non-profit research institution founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell. The Observatory has been the site of many important findings including the discovery of the large recessional velocities (redshift) of galaxies by Vesto Slipher in 1912-1914 (a result that led ultimately to the realization the universe is expanding), and the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Today, Lowell’s 22 astronomers use ground-based telescopes around the world, telescopes in space, and NASA planetary spacecraft to conduct research in diverse areas of astronomy and planetary science. The Observatory welcomes about 80,000 visitors each year to its Mars Hill campus in Flagstaff, Arizona for a variety of tours, telescope viewing, and special programs. Lowell Observatory currently has four research telescopes at its Anderson Mesa dark sky site east of Flagstaff, and is testing and commissioning a 4-meter class research telescope, the Discovery Channel Telescope. For more information, visit lowell.edu

About the Keck Interferometer
The Keck Interferometer is a ground-based component of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program. At 4,150 meters (13,600 feet) above the Pacific Ocean, atop the dormant volcano Mauna Kea on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, the twin Keck Telescopes are the world’s largest telescopes for optical and near-infrared astronomy. The Keck Interferometer joins these giant telescopes to form a powerful astronomical instrument. Since 1996, NASA has been a partner in the Keck Observatory, receiving a guaranteed 1/6th share of the observing time; one primary motivation for the involvement of NASA in Keck was the development & operation of the cutting-edge interferometer instrument. Since 2003, the Keck Interferometer has been in scheduled operation for a range of peer-reviewed science programs. For example, KI observations have been used to study questions about the origins of stars and galaxies. Recent results include observations of disks around young stars which may be in the process of forming planets, and measurements of the massive disks of gas and dust surrounding the black holes at the center of several nearby galaxies. For more information, visit http://science.nasa.gov/missions/keck/


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