Lowell researchers take center stage at Ask an Astronomer series

On Monday evenings through August from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., you have the chance to speak to a professional astronomer about their work, the Observatory, and, of course, any burning astronomy questions you may have.

Upcoming astronomers include:

July 16               Evgenya Shkolnik

July 23               Lisa Prato

July 30               Gerard Van Belle

August 6             TBD

August 13           Gerard Van Belle

In addition, our Flagstaff Night now features the Astronomer Speaker Series. On the first Wednesday night of each month at 7:00 p.m., hear an astronomer discuss an exciting aspect of space. Flagstaff residents pay only half the regular admission rate from 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Upcoming speakers include:

August 1              Larry Wasserman

September 5        Evgenya Shkolnik

October 3            Deidre Hunter

November 7         Kevin Covey

December 5         Nat White

In addition to these presentations, view breathtaking celestial objects through telescopes and enjoy exciting multimedia programs.

See you soon on Mars Hill!

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Experience Music and the Stars at Lowell on summer Thursdays

Starting today and on each Thursday this summer through August 16, a Flagstaff band will play music for the public from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Rotunda plaza. Tonight, hear Pony Express, a family band featuring a variety of folk, jazz, classic rock, and country music.

Upcoming bands include Big Willie and the Polka Meisters (6/21), the Jack Webb Band, the Mars Hillbillies, Cat Black, and others. Check out our events page or our Facebook page for schedule updates.

Come enjoy family-friendly sounds at Lowell as the stars come out for the evening’s second act, telescope viewing, if weather permits.

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Come to Lowell to see the Transit of Venus, June 5th!

An image of the 2004 Transit of Venus. (NASA)

Flagstaff, Ariz. — Lowell Observatory will host a special viewing event for the Transit of Venus on Tuesday, June 5th. At 2 p.m., join author and science historian William Sheehan for an indoor presentation about this unusual and fascinating celestial event. A transit takes place when Venus passes between the Sun and Earth, making it possible for us to see the small dark disk of Venus against the bright disk of the Sun.

Later, we will have specially filtered telescopes to allow you to safely view the shadow of Venus passing over the Sun. The Transit starts at about 3:05 p.m. and viewing will continue until the Sun passes behind trees. The Starry Skies Shop at Lowell currently has 2,000 solar glasses for sale.

Later, enjoy exciting multimedia programs and view other breathtaking objects through telescopes.

Mr. Sheehan will also discuss the Transit at a talk titled “Here Comes the Transit!,” which will take place Monday, June 4th at 7 p.m.

Venus transits occur in pairs eight-years apart; pairs are separated by more than a century, making Venus transits among the rarest of planetary alignments. Next week’s Transit is the first since June 8, 2004 and the next pair of Venus transits will occur more than a century from now on December 11, 2117 and December 8, 2125.

These events are co-sponsored by the Coconino Astronomical Society.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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

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Lowell Observatory launches new Pro-Am research initiative

Flagstaff, Ariz. — Lowell Observatory is proud to announce the Lowell Amateur Research Initiative (LARI). This program seeks to pair the ever-growing and technically sophisticated amateur astronomy community in exciting research projects with Lowell astronomers.

A passionate researcher, Percival Lowell always sought to communicate new ideas and the joy of astronomy research to the public. In that same spirit, LARI brings together professional and amateur astronomers in a way that affords interested amateurs an opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research and potentially make significant contributions to science. Amateurs can help Lowell astronomers in their work and help create dedicated research teams. LARI will expand Lowell Observatory’s education and public outreach missions, and promote greater awareness of astronomy and related sciences.

Currently, Lowell astronomers are conducting several projects that would benefit from the participation of amateur astronomers. These projects span a broad range of technical skills and knowledge from taking very deep images of galaxies to monitoring small stars for transient events to data mining.

Visit the LARI homepage to find out more and to create your LARI account. After getting a sense of your skills and interests, we will do our best to match you with the appropriate researcher and project.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Science contact: Bruce Koehn, Lowell Observatory, (928) 233-3274, koehn[at]lowell[dot]edu

Press contact: 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

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The Lives of Stars, or Astronomers as Paparazzi

by Dr. Katy Garmany, Deputy Press Officer, National Optical Astronomy Observatory

Fig. 1: The yellow and red supergiants in the Large Magellanic Cloud are marked on an images of the LMC, taken to reveal the glowing interstellar gas around very hot stars. (LMC Image available from the NOAO Image Gallery) Image Credit: C. Smith, S. Points, the MCELS Team and NOAO/AURA/NSF

Stars live for a long time, with even the most massive stars having lifetimes measured in millions of years. But, for a mere few thousand years towards the end of their lives, some massive stars go through what astronomers call the yellow supergiant phase. This is remarkably short in astronomical terms, and, as a result, stars in this phase are incredibly rare. In a recent study, astronomers from Lowell Observatory have acted as “stellar paparazzi”, managing to identify hundreds of these rare yellow supergiants, and their more long-lived descendants, the red supergiants in two neighboring galaxies. The Lowell astronomers use these newly identified populations to provide a stringent observational test for the theoretical models which describe how these stars change from blue, to yellow and then to red. These constraints are vital because the behavior of the models in this phase can influence many theoretical predictions, including something as “basic” as what types of stars explode as supernova.

Nearby red supergiant stars include such well-known stars as Betelgeuse, Antares, and Mu Cephei, and yellow supergiant stars include names like Canopus and rho Cassiopeiae, although these stars were not included in the study.

Fig 2: The yellow and red supergiants in M33. Image taken as part of the NOAO Local Group Galaxies Survey (P. Massey).

As described in two recent papers the group from Lowell Observatory, using NOAO facilities in Chile and the Multiple Mirror Telescope in Arizona, have observed a relatively complete set of the red and yellow supergiants in the nearby galaxies of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and M33. The location of the supergiants in the LMC are shown in Figure 1; those in M33 are shown in fig. 2. The astronomers compared their observations with computer models of stars derived by a group at Geneva Observatory, Switzerland, and find excellent agreement between their observed sample and theory in predicting the stellar lifetimes and general stellar properties during a critical period near the end of the stars’ lifetimes. This is in contrast to studies from three years ago by the same teams that showed large discrepancies between yellow supergiant populations and a previous version of the Geneva evolutionary models.

These two studies were led by two young researchers at Lowell Observatory, Kathryn Neugent (lead for the LMC study) and Maria Drout (lead for the M33 study), and both involve an international collaboration with Dr. Georges Meynet (Geneva Observatory), one of the world’s experts in stellar evolution theory. Both women retain the status of researcher at Lowell, while pursuing other concerns: Ms Neugent has recently joined the staff of MITRE in Colorado Springs as a cyber security analysist, and Ms Drout is completing her first year in the PhD program at Harvard. Phil Massey, a staff astronomer at Lowell Observatory, helped with both studies, and Brian Skiff, another researcher at Lowell Observatory, helped with the LMC study.

To astronomers, the HR diagram (a plot of the intrinsic luminosity versus temperature of all stars) is key to understanding the evolution, or lifetime, of stars. For most of their lives, stars, fueled by hydrogen in their cores, are constant in brightness and temperature, and this phase, termed the main sequence, is well understood. But there have been problems with understanding how the temperature and luminosity of a star rapidly changes as the core of the star is exhausted at the end of the stellar life. Understanding the late stages of stellar evolution is important for other questions, too. Yellow supergiants may be the progenitors of core-collapse supernovae, and understanding supernovae completely has important implications for cosmology.

Interpreting the HR diagram depends on mathematical models of a star’s interior, which indicate how stars of different masses change with age. These models, based on knowledge of the physics of nuclear reaction rates, predict how a star of a given mass will change in temperature and luminosity over its lifetime, but models require careful comparison with actual observations. Suppose curious aliens visited earth and, from a quick schoolyard survey, noted that human weight and height increase with age. The aliens might propose a model for human growth in which weight and height increase smoothly with age, but this model would not allow for adolescent growth spurts or middle age. If they compared their model with further measurements of fast sprouting teenagers, they would be puzzled. This is akin to the problem astronomers have faced in understanding the red and yellow supergiants. Previous evolutional models predicted far too many yellow supergiants—in other words, theoretical yellow supergiants seem to live much longer than the real stars in nature. This may resonate with those familiar with star names: it’s easy to come up with examples of red supergiants like Betelgeuse, but more difficult to think of examples of yellow supergiants whose lifetimes are measured in only a few tens of thousand years.

The Lowell group studied the supergiants in nearby galaxies, rather than our own Milky Way, to avoid the problems of identifying and characterizing stars at different distances. First, they selected stars based on their colors and angular motion across the sky. For the LMC study, they obtained spectra of almost 2,000 stars by making use of Hydra, a spectrograph on the Blanco 4-m telescope on Cerro Tololo (in northern Chile) that allows many stars to be observed at the same time. They obtained a similar number of spectra of the M33 stars using Hectospec on the 6.5-meter MMT telescope located on Mt Hopkins (in southern Arizona). The spectra provide a star’s radial velocity: motion towards or away from us. This is key to deciding which stars are actually foreground red and yellow stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, masquerading as red supergiants in these other galaxies. The work by the Lowell astronomers was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The observational data in the paper on the LMC were taken at NOAO’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory by K. Neugent, P. Massey, and B. Skiff, all from Lowell Observatory. A second paper on M33, by M. Drout and P. Massey, makes use of data collected through time granted by NOAO at the MMT Observatory. Both papers rely on mathematical models by G. Meynet, Geneva University. The published version of the LMC paper is available at http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/1202.4225, the preprint of the M33 paper accepted for publication is available at http://lanl.arxiv.org/abs/1203.0247

NOAO, which manages CTIO, is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

For press inquiries, contact Dr. Garmany (kgarmany[at]noao.edu; 520-318-8526) or Chuck Wendt (cwendt[at]lowell.edu; 928-233-3201).

For science inquiries, contact Maria R. Drout at mdrout[at]cfa.harvard.edu

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Are you ready for Adventures in Space?

After nearly 18 months of development, the labor of educational love known as “Uncle Percy’s Adventures in Space” is ready for launch!

See below for official press release:

Flagstaff, Ariz. — The wonders of the solar system are now on display for young kids in the new animated series “Uncle Percy’s Adventures in Space!” Geared to kids aged 4 to 8, the 11-part series is produced by Lowell Observatory, where each episode begins.

Created to further Lowell’s educational outreach mission, the series takes kids to the eight major planets, the Sun, the Moon, and, of course, Pluto! In each episode, an animated version of Percival Lowell and a robotic assistant named Miss Kitty travel from the Observatory’s campus to study these solar-system objects in a spaceship version of Mr. Lowell’s car, a functioning 1911 Stevens-Duryea nicknamed “Big Red”.

Each episode includes an accompanying workbook produced in cooperation with Northern Arizona University’s College of Education. The series and workbooks were developed to fit state and federal science teaching standards.

“Uncle Percy’s Adventures in Space” is a unique educational tool meant to introduce appropriate scientific concepts to young kids through the engaging lens of astronomy. Major funding for the project comes from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, the Robert Martin Ayers Sciences Fund, and the David and Stacy Lerner Foundation (in memory of David Lerner).

Today, we launch Uncle Percy’s Adventures in Space! Would you like to join us?

Visit http://www.lowell.edu/unclepercy.php for episodes and workbooks.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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

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Uncle Percy’s Kids Camp is coming this summer!

 


This summer, we are proud to offer three week-long day camps for school-aged kids (up to 6th grade). Camp themes include the Sun, the Moon, and how we use light to understand the universe.

Get more information and sign up today!

 

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Mini-documentary shows Lowell team aboard SOFIA airborne observatory

A new mini-documentary created by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) about the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) features Lowell astronomers at work aboard the modified Boeing 747 SP during the June 2011 Pluto occultation. You’ll see Dr. Ted Dunham, Tom Bida, Peter Collins, and Brian Taylor (BU).

The video, titled SOFIA: Stars and the Space Between, will be playing in the Black Hole Theater at AMNH for the next six months. The museum is located in at Central Park West and 79th Street, New York, NY, 10024-5192.

If you can’t make it to the museum, you can see the video below. Enjoy!

SOFIA: Stars and the Space Between

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TIME World’s 100 Most Important Places: #73 Lowell Observatory

In case you hadn’t heard, Lowell Observatory was named one of the world’s 100 most important places by TIME, in the section regarding places of inquiry (which also includes the Royal Observatory and the Galapagos Islands, among others). The Observatory was also #73 in a coffee-table-book version called “TIME Great Places of History: Civilization’s 100 Most Important Sites: An Illustrated Journey.” Both are now available from your favorite online retailer.

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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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