Classrooms, Telescopes, and the Origins of the Universe

September 9, 2013 | by Patrick Cliff

Seven-thousand feet above sea level, on a dusty summit 56 miles outside of Tucson, Arizona, sits Kitt Peak National Observatory, one of the world’s largest astronomical observatories. Research done at Kitt Peak has contributed to a better understanding of dark matter’s role in the universe and the discovery of water vapor on the surface of the sun. This summer, the facility was home to a one-of-a-kind astronomy course designed and led by astronomy professor Sally Oey.

Oey is trying to change the way that astronomy is taught and, in collaboration with Anne Jaskot, an astronomy Ph.D. candidate who also worked as a graduate instructor on the Kitt Peak course, she is hoping to expand our understanding of the origins of the universe.

“This class is unique because it’s the first time anybody, anywhere has ever taken a course and had it up at Kitt Peak for a month,” Oey explains. “The focus of the course is not just on how to use the telescopes, which we did, but also learning what observatories are, how they function, how you decide what kinds of telescopes and instruments to build, the different designs for telescopes, different designs for instruments, different designs for enclosures. All that and more.”

In addition to learning about Kitt Peak’s massive stargazing infrastructure, students also participated in community outreach and education programs at the facility, learning about the in-school astronomy projects and shadowing Kitt Peak’s docents on guided tours.

Students also conducted research using some of the most powerful telescopes at Kitt Peak, including two research-quality telescopes that U-M runs in consortium with a group of other universities.

“Students had to write proposals,” Oey says. “They had to carry out the observations, they had to reduce the data and analyze the data and come to some conclusion and present final posters on their science results.

“It was a total immersion experience. We were going 24/7 for four weeks. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and I think we all had a fantastic time.”

At Kitt Peak, Oey was working toward the future of astronomy. Back at U-M, though, she and Jaskot are searching the distant past for clues about the origins of the universe. And they’re hoping things called “Green Pea” galaxies hold the key to that understanding.

In the Beginning…

Green Pea galaxies carry a vague resemblance to those small, round vegetables so often pushed aside on dinner plates. But these galaxies are anything but inconsequential. Closer inspection through powerful telescopes like those at Kitt Peak reveals that these galaxies are vibrantly bursting with very hot stars.

“Green Pea galaxies are very compact, forming stars at an unsustainable rate—we call them starbursts—where a lot of ultraviolet radiation is produced,” Oey says. “So much radiation is produced that it may not be contained within the galaxy, it actually overflows from the galaxy.”

Jaskot and Oey recently published a paper on how overflowing ultraviolet radiation from Green Pea galaxies may happen in a way similar to that of primordial galaxies. The young universe was mostly made up of very dense gas, specifically hydrogen, and escaping energy from young galaxies may have been responsible for ionizing or “evaporating” this dense gas, transforming space into what we know it as today.

“We’re still trying to understand how the universe itself became ionized back in its infancy, not long after the Big Bang,” Oey says. “We are trying to find analogs to those primordial galaxies.”  

Oey and Jaskot recently found out that a proposal they submitted to use the Hubble Space Telescope to further study Green Pea galaxies has been accepted. Oey credits the University for its wealth of resources and flexibility, allowing her to teach a range of classes and affording both students and herself the opportunity to access powerful tools—whether in Ann Arbor, Arizona, or in orbit around the earth.

“Being at the University of Michigan has been such a rich experience,” Oey says. “I want our students to take advantage of all that Michigan has to offer.”

 

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