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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Lowell astronomer, project team receive precious time with Herschel Space Observatory

DDO 75 will be studied with the Herschel by the LITTLE THINGS team. (Image: Lowell/LITTLE THINGS)

Flagstaff, Ariz. — The LITTLE THINGS (LT) dwarf-galaxy research team recently received 12.3 hours of priority 1 time with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory, a far-infrared instrument. LT co-investigator Dr. Deidre Hunter of Lowell Observatory says this is only the second and last call for proposals on the telescope, as it will soon be decommissioned.

With this time, the LT team will measure radiation from dust to determine the amount and distribution of the dust and the effect of its presence, or lack thereof, on star formation in galaxies with very low amounts of heavy elements, according to Dr. Hunter. “This is the part that is similar to the early universe – the lack of heavy elements,” she explains. The team will make these measurements by using two of the Herschel’s three instruments: the Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) and the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE).

The LT team also had a successful priority 1 proposal in the first call for Herschel proposals in 2009. Additional Lowell researchers have or are currently involved in other projects utilizing Herschel, which was launched in 2009 and has a nominal routine operational lifetime of three years, according to ESA.

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 LITTLE THINGS

The LITTLE THINGS Survey, or Local Irregulars That Trace Luminosity Extremes (LITTLE) and The HI (neutral hydrogen) Nearby Galaxy Survey (THINGS), involves a worldwide team of 17 researchers who have assembled a complete dataset on 41 relatively normal, nearby gas-rich dwarf-irregular galaxies, tracing their stellar populations, gas content, dynamics, and star formation indicators. By mapping the gasses in these diffuse galaxies, the team can try to discern the many processes of star formation, which are thought to be similar in such galaxies to what they were right after the Big Bang. LITTLE THINGS brings together deep, high spatial and high-spectral resolution HI-line maps with optical, ultraviolet, and infrared data of the 41 dwarf-irregular galaxies, covering nearly the full range of galactic parameters seen in dwarf galaxies. Data collected at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array near Socorro, NM, shows clouds, shells, and turbulent structures that are important for star formation. A special session concerning LITTLE THINGS research results will be held in January at the American Astronomical Society’s 219th meeting in Austin, TX. For more on LITTLE THINGS, visit http://www.lowell.edu/users/dah/littlethings/index.html

About Herschel Space Observatory

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory (formerly called Far Infrared and Sub-millimetre Telescope or FIRST) has the largest single mirror ever built for a space telescope. At 3.5-meters in diameter, the mirror collects long-wavelength radiation from some of the coldest and most distant objects in the Universe. In addition, Herschel is the only space observatory to cover a spectral range from the far infrared to sub-millimeter. Herschel’s mission objectives are to study the formation of galaxies in the early Universe and their subsequent evolution; investigate the creation of stars and their interaction with the interstellar medium; observe the chemical composition of the atmospheres and surfaces of comets, planets and satellites; and examine the molecular chemistry of the Universe. For more on Herschel, visit http://sci.esa.int/herschel/

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The Survival of Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3), A Once in a Generation Event

Comet Lovejoy nears its perihelion. Image courtesy NRL.

Lowell Observatory postdoctoral research scientist Matthew Knight has been quite busy the last few days. Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3), a recently discovered “Kreutz sungrazing comet,” reached perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) last night and did something none of the more than 1,600 Kreutz comets observed since 1970 has done: it survived!

Dr. Knight studied sungrazing comets observed by the SOHO satellite for his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Maryland. Now a post-doc at Lowell Observatory, he recently received a grant from NASA to expand these studies, so when Comet Lovejoy was discovered in late November, he was expertly prepared to study it.

Comet Lovejoy was the first Kreutz comet to be discovered from the ground since 1970. This gave scientists about a week’s worth of lead time to prepare observations using several spacecraft which normally study the Sun. Dr. Knight consulted with colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to optimize observations, using shorter than normal exposure times and cycling through different filters more frequently in order to prevent the comet from saturating the cameras and to learn more about its composition in the process.

Comet Lovejoy first appeared in SOHO images early on Wednesday. Since then, Dr. Knight has been measuring its brightness and studying its changing shape, reporting his preliminary findings in near-real time to the NRL team so that subsequent observations could be improved. Lovejoy surpassed all reasonable expectations, temporarily rivaling Venus in brightness and surviving its journey to the very edge of the Sun. This caught Dr. Knight and collaborators by surprise, but they are delighted by the new developments. “It has been more than 40 years since something like this happened, and we did not have the kinds of telescopic capabilities then that we have today,” says Dr. Knight, “I am furiously looking at data as it arrives from the numerous telescopes in space which managed to observe Comet Lovejoy, and I anticipate many groundbreaking discoveries to come out of these remarkable observations.”

For more information, contact Chuck Wendt at cwendt[at]lowell[dot]edu, (928) 233-3201, or Tom Vitron at tvitron[at]lowell[dot]edu, (928) 233-3260.

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NPOI renamed to reflect its evolving role in research

In October, the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI) was renamed the Navy Optical Interferometer (NOI), reflecting the instrument’s evolution into a very productive, modern research tool. The NOI is the result of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Naval Observatory, the Naval Research Laboratory, and Lowell Observatory. The NOI will be expanded in the coming years with the addition of new imaging stations (called siderostats) to the array, a new 6-telescope beam combiner, and other facility upgrades. Read more about NOI.

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Lowell Observatory, Boston University Announce Discovery Channel Telescope Partnership

Lowell Observatory announces that Boston University (BU) has signed a long-term agreement to become a partner for the Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT). The agreement in perpetuity grants BU astronomers use of the world-class, four-meter telescope for 40 or more nights each year.

“Lowell Observatory has a strong relationship with BU that we expect will get stronger as a result of this agreement,” says Lowell director Dr. Jeff Hall. “We look forward to increased scientific and outreach collaboration with BU.”

BU will pay $10 million divided into one-year installments during the next decade, most of which will go toward the University’s perpetual-use share of the DCT. Thereafter, BU will pay roughly $500,000 per year for ongoing operating costs for its share of both the DCT and Lowell’s telescopes on Anderson Mesa. BU is second only to Discovery Communications and Discovery founder John Hendricks in its contribution to the DCT project, and the only Lowell partner to have opted for a long-term use investment in the facility.

In 1998, the Observatory and BU formed a partnership to share in the use and operational costs of the Perkins Telescope, along with Georgia State University.

FOR MORE INFORMATION 

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

About the Discovery Channel Telescope

The Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) – being built by Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona – will be among the most technically sophisticated ground-based telescopes of its size. The telescope, expected to be the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States, is being tested and commissioned at a dark-sky site on the Coconino National Forest approximately 45 miles SSE of Flagstaff. The project is being undertaken in partnership with Discovery Communications. Construction and commissioning of the telescope and associated infrastructure will cost approximately $53 million. The telescope will significantly augment Lowell Observatory’s observational capability and enable pioneering studies in a number of important research areas. First light, or first scientific use of the telescope, will take place in 2012.

A view inside the dome at the telescope. (Jonathan Wilkendorf)

The DCT's home near Happy Jack, AZ, 45 miles SSE of Flagstaff. (Padraig Houlahan)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 20 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 building a four-meter class research telescope, the Discovery Channel Telescope.

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2011 SORCE Science Meeting

by Dr. Wes Lockwood

Last month, Lowell Observatory was the local host for the 8th SORCE Science Meeting, held in Sedona. SORCE (Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment) is a satellite launched in 2003 and operated by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. It measures the total solar irradiance (the output of the Sun summed over all wavelengths), and the solar spectrum as well as other quantities relevant to the Sun’s influence on climate.

The theme of this year’s workshop was “Decadal Cycles in the Sun, Sun-like Stars, and Earth’s Climate System.” Jeff Hall and I have given brief reports about stellar variability at previous SORCE workshops, but this time an entire afternoon session was devoted to what we have learned from Sun-like stars pertinent to the question of solar variability. Lowell Observatory has been involved in this line of work since 1953. We have characterized the variability of Sun-like stars on decadal timescales using observations made by Brian Skiff from 1984 to 2000 at our historic 21-inch reflecting telescope on Mars Hill. Our results are published in a series of papers in The Astrophysical Journal beginning in 1997. Observations with robotic photometric telescopes at Fairborn Observatory in southern Arizona continue under the direction of Greg Henry at Tennessee State University.

Our long-time collaborator Richard Radick at the Air Force Research Laboratory, Sunspot, NM, gave the keynote address for the stellar session, His survey included Lowell work that Jeff Hall, Brian Skiff, Len Bright, and I continue to do using the solar-stellar spectrograph (“SSS”) at the 42-inch telescope as well as photometric work at Lowell and Fairborn Observatory.

This year’s SORCE workshop included a field trip via bus up through Oak Creek Canyon to Lowell Observatory where we hosted campus tours, a reception in the Rotunda, the customary science dinner, and telescope viewing at the Clark telescope. It was a privilege for the Observatory to offer prominent solar and climate scientists from all over the world a brief taste of what makes Lowell Observatory a special place in the history of twentieth century astronomy.

For more information about SORCE, check out their website. http://lasp.colorado.edu/sorce/index.htm.

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Lowell Observatory astronomers chase Pluto’s shadow

(Reprint of press release written by visiting astronomer Dr. Amanda Bosh of MIT)

On 23 June 2011, Pluto passed in front of a star and cast a small shadow on the Earth, and astronomers from Lowell Observatory were waiting. Four Lowell astronomers were among the scientists and crew who observed the rare occultation event from NASA’s newest airborne observatory, SOFIA–the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. SOFIA sports a 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope aboard a modified 747SP aircraft, and can fly up to 45,000 ft. to get above most of the cloud cover and water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The SOFIA aircraft with its observation door visible.

The June 23rd Pluto occultation was observed using HIPO–the High-speed Imaging Photometer for Occultations. Built at Lowell Observatory, HIPO has dual high-speed cameras that record light at two wavelengths simultaneously. The instrument group at Lowell were involved in everything from design, fabrication, software, testing, and flight-readiness preparation. Lowell staff members Ted Dunham (HIPO Principal Investigator), Peter Collins, Tom Bida, and Brian Taylor all flew on SOFIA for the occultation flight, along with Michael Person from the MIT group.

SOFIA's HIPO instrument with Dr. Ted Dunham.

Pluto holds onto a very thin atmosphere of nitrogen, methane, and a few other gases. Pluto’s atmosphere was first measured directly by astronomers from MIT and Lowell Observatory in 1988 using the stellar occultation technique: monitoring the light from a star as Pluto and its atmosphere pass in front of it. The way in which the starlight dims lets astronomers determine the temperature and density of this tenuous atmosphere. In 1988, astronomers watched from a variety of telescopes in Australia and New Zealand, as well as from the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), a 36-inch telescope aboard a C-141A transport aircraft, while flying over the Pacific Ocean.

Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere exists because of vapor-pressure equilibrium, where a small amount of gas resides above any solid ice surface. The atmosphere in this state is very sensitive to changes in surface temperature, and since 1989 Pluto has been receding from the Sun. Because the Sun is Pluto’s prime source of heat, astronomers expect Pluto’s surface to become colder and for its atmosphere to become less dense and to finally freeze out onto the surface. However, Pluto’s atmosphere is instead becoming more dense, as has been shown through several occultation events observed since 1988. One goal of continued study is to understand the timescale of the global changes in Pluto’s atmosphere; to this end, astronomers have been tracking Pluto occultations across the globe every year from March through October, during Pluto’s observing season.

The ability to precisely position SOFIA within the shadow called for a massive prediction effort in the weeks before the event. Telescope time for astrometry (the measurement of precise positions of celestial objects) was secured at Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Naval Observatory–Flagstaff Station, and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory at La Serena, Chile. Lowell staff members Stephen Levine and Len Bright obtained the observations with the USNO and Lowell telescopes and immediately sent these data to MIT to be analyzed by the astrometry group there.

Amanda Bosh (MIT, visiting astronomer at Lowell Obs.) reports that astrometric images were appearing at MIT mere minutes after they were acquired. They were processed and Pluto’s path toward the star was analyzed by Bosh and colleague Carlos Zuluaga (MIT) to determine where the shadow path would fall on the Earth. Researchers planned a last-minute flight path update, via Iridium satellite phone call between SOFIA and the researchers at MIT. The flight path was modified by about 125 miles; after the revision, SOFIA flew northwest for 30 minutes, capturing the occultation with both channels of HIPO as well as with the Fast Diagnostic Camera (Jurgen Wolf, Deutsches SOFIA Institut and SOFIA Science Center). The final update put SOFIA within about 65 miles of the exact center of the shadow.

Many ground-based observers also captured the event, including Amanda Gulbis (SALT and MIT) and Jay Pasachoff (Williams College), observing from two sites in Hawaii, Alessondra Springmann (MIT) and Michael Hicks (JPL) at Table Mountain in southern California, and Stephen Levine (Lowell) at USNO in Flagstaff. Other teams from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and l’Observatoire de Paris were observing the same event throughout the Pacific basin; the SwRI team included Lowell astronomer Larry Wasserman who observed from the island nation of Nauru. Data analysis is underway and results will be presented at the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society fall meeting in October 2011 in Nantes, France.

This Pluto occultation observation continues a long history of occultation science at Lowell Observatory that includes many astronomers, past and present, who have used the technique to study bodies as diverse as asteroids, planets, planetary rings, and stars. Key results include the discovery of the rings around Uranus in 1977, as well as Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988.

Lowell Observatory remembers two key HIPO team members who passed away in the few months before the first flight: James Elliot and James Darwin. Over the years, Lowell Observatory astronomers have worked closely with MIT astronomer Jim Elliot, who was a Co-Investigator on the HIPO project, was also on the Lowell staff and would spend summers working at Lowell Observatory. Dr. Elliot passed away in March 2011, less than a month before the group received word that the Pluto occultation had been approved for SOFIA. Jim Darwin, Lowell’s machinist for many years, fabricated most of HIPO’s components. Jim retired in 2005 and passed away this June, less than a month before the commissioning flight.

Funding for this research was provided by grants from USRA for SOFIA and NASA’s Planetary Astronomy Program.

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Welcome

Welcome to Lowell Observatory’s new Web site. 

For now, the site has four main areas.  Two are devoted to research — you can read about our astronomers’ projects and get all the latest news about the Discovery Channel Telescope.  Two are about how you can be part of Lowell — what you can do when you visit us here on Mars Hill, and how you can support our mission of astronomical research and outreach.  Taken together, this all should give you a complete picture of a special place.

Here on the blog, we’ll regularly post press releases and other news items.  You can also connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

We’ve enjoyed creating this new site, and we thank Julie Sullivan (Julie Sullivan Design) and Nancy Riccio (Plateau Mediaworks) for all their work getting it together for us. We hope you find it informative and enjoyable.

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