Lowell’s astronomers carry out research in areas spanning much of modern astrophysics, from studies of tiny icy objects in our own solar system to the structure of distant galaxies.
Ted Bowell directed the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS). The program recently completed 10-year search for Earth-approaching asteroids and comets using a fully automated 0.6-m Schmidt telescope at Anderson Mesa. LONEOS discovered 289 Near-Earth asteroids and 42 comets, taking some 450,000 individual exposures of 130,000 regions on the sky.
Dave Schleicher researches the origins and evolution of comets. Because comets are believed to be the most pristine objects remaining from the time of solar system formation, they provide a unique probe of evolutionary conditions. We routinely measure five molecular species in the visible and near-ultraviolet portions of the spectrum.
Will Grundy studies the icy surfaces of outer solar system objects — Pluto, Eris, and Makemake, the icy satellites of giant planets, centaurs, and Kuiper belt objects. Because many of these objects are binaries or multiple systems, it’s possible to determine their densities using high-spatial-resolution imaging. The largest feature surfaces of frozen water, oxygen, nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, sculpted by chemical and physical processes.
Henry Roe’s research interests include Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), the role and history of methane in our solar system, and objects at the edges of the known solar system. Roe co-discovered methane clouds in Titan’s atmosphere and is investigating the seasonal nature of Titan’s methane weather. He has observed a region of unusual geologic activity on Titan’s surface that is likely resupplying methane to its atmosphere. Roe is also engaged in a variety of search techniques to uncover new objects in the Kuiper Belt.
Since 1992, astronomers have been exploring the vast and intriguing region beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt. Tens of thousands of icy Kuiper Belt Objects await discovery as they slowly orbit the Sun. Lowell’s Larry Wasserman is working with a multi-institutional team to conduct the Deep Ecliptic Survey, an initial reconnaissance of the Kuiper Belt, at facilities of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Georgi Mandushev and Ted Dunham are part of an international collaboration dedicated to discovering planets orbiting other stars. They high-precision photometry to detect planets as they cross the disks of parent stars along our line of sight, causing a small, temporary dip in the star’s brightness. Using a network of small telescopes around the globe, Georgi and Ted have co-discovered several new planets in the class of so-called “hot Jupiters,” including the largest exoplanet ever found.
Travis Barman uses large-scale numerical models to predict the structure, chemistry, and emergent spectra of the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. He compares these predictions to observations of extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs to infer their basic properties. Barman also searches for young, self-luminous, planets using the Keck telescope, with adaptive optics.
Much of Lisa Prato’s research focuses on young stars in binary systems. Most objects with ages of about 1 to a few million years in the nearest star-forming regions — Taurus, Ophiuchus, Corona Australis — are located in bound, multiple systems. Because they are representative of young stars, it is important to understand their origins, evolution, and chances for circumstellar and circumbinary planet formation.
Larry Wasserman, in collaboration with Otto Franz, applies his interest in ephemeris calculation to the orbits of relatively close (less than a few tenths of an arcsec), low mass, binary stars. These astronomers are interested in obtaining accurate masses of low mass stars. They use the Hubble Space Telescope to measure binary separation to a precision of a milliarcsec and position angle to a precision of 0.1 degrees, even for stars with a difference in brightness of several magnitudes.
Phil Massey carries out observational tests of stellar evolution theory by using the nearby galaxies of the Local Group as his laboratories. Currently, he and Lowell research assistants Kathryn Neugent and Maria Drout are identifying Wolf-Rayet stars and yellow and red supergiants in the nearby spiral galaxies M31 and M33 using spectroscopy obtained at the 6.5-m MMT telescope.
Deidre Hunter looks at the physical processes inside the tiniest galaxies in the Universe — dwarf irregular galaxies. She also studies the extreme outer edges of irregulars to learn how the densities of stars and gases drop off there, where they end, and how stars form out there. Dr. Hunter is obtaining very deep images to trace these stars and deep radio maps to trace the gas.
Ted Dunham is the Principal Investigator for development of HIPO, a specialized occultation instrument for SOFIA. Initially slated as a critical component in the test program of the completed facility, HIPO will be subsequently be used to observe occultations of stars by solar system objects, transits of extrasolar planets, and stellar oscillations. Dunham is also a co-investigator on the Kepler mission, a NASA Discovery mission designed to detect earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like stars in their habitable zones.
Twenty years ago, stimulated by the knowledge that the Sun’s brightness varied by less than 0.1 percent over its 11-year cycle, Wes Lockwood and colleagues began studying the small brightness fluctuations of Sun-like stars. Brian Skiff observed several dozen such stars for 16 consecutive seasons. The team found that most Sun-like stars vary in brightness by 0.3 to several percent and that the amount of variability decreases with age. Compared to the stars in our survey, the Sun appears to be relatively quiescent — perhaps a very important finding for Sun-climate studies.