Yale astronomers stargaze in Hawaii

Yale astronomers can stargaze from an observatory on Prospect Street — or, as of last month, from the top of a dormant volcano in Hawaii.

Last week, thanks to a new agreement with the California Institute of Technology, Yale astronomy professor Marla Geha used the first of Yale’s 150 nights — for which the University paid Caltech $12 million — to observe at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. She said the most exciting discovery, which was made during the first few hours, was of a new dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way.

Meg Urry, the director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics and chair of the Physics Department, said access to the world’s two largest optical telescopes will put Yale’s astronomy department at the forefront of its field, as well as attract top faculty members and postdoctoral and graduate students to Yale.

“This lets us do cutting-edge science, in competition with anyone anywhere else in the world,” Urry said. “If an observation can be made with an optical/infrared telescope, it can be made with Keck.”

AN EFFICIENT TOOL

Yale astronomers said they have had their eyes on Keck for several years. Although initial discussion about advancing astronomy and astrophysics at Yale began about the same time as the creation of the center in 2001, the University began seriously investigating options for new facilities in 2006. Urry said the center submitted a proposal to the Provost’s Office in 2007 outlining their specific request for Keck, after which negotiations began with Caltech. The deal was signed Jan. 28 this year.

Urry said the University received a “substantial discount” as part of the agreement. According to the National Science Foundation, Keck’s cost-per-night, based on capital and operating costs, is $100,000, while Yale will pay only $80,000 per night.

That is also cheaper than using other space-related technology, such as ships, airplanes, spacecraft and deep mines, which are used to study neutrino astronomy, astronomy professor Richard Larson said. Similarly, the chair of the Astronomy Department, Jeffrey Kenney, said it would be impractical for Yale to build its own large telescope when it can use Keck’s facilities for a “fraction of the cost” and without any administrative or upkeep costs.

A majority of 19 professors and students interviewed for this article agreed that the benefits that come with the 150 nights of observing — which will be spread out over the next 10 years – far outweigh the cost.

“The Keck telescopes … have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the formation and evolution of the universe,” physics and astronomy professor Daisuke Nagai said. “It is a non-trivial to put price tags to the investment like this, as advances and exploration for new knowledge are priceless.”

Yale researchers will also be able to gather a wealth of data in a shorter span of time. Geha and a student from the University of California managed to collect data nonstop from sunset to sunrise, despite the threat of cloud cover, she said.

“The data obtained during this night alone will result in at least two and possibly three published papers, one undergraduate project, and … part of a Ph.D. thesis,” Geha said. “The Keck telescope is an amazingly powerful facility — a single night of data can be the basis for several months of fruitful work.”

FREEING UP RESOURCES

But the Keck telescopes are not the only high-level, off-campus telescopes to which Yale has access. Prior to the agreement with Caltech, Yale astronomers relied heavily on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope in Arizona and the four 1-meter SMARTS consortium telescopes in Chile, although they also have access to four other observatories.

Despite the access to the larger Keck telescopes, both the WIYN and SMARTS telescopes will continue to play an important role in Yale’s astronomy research, Urry, Kenney and Charles Bailyn, the director of undergraduate studies for the Astronomy Department, confirmed.

“With Keck, WIYN and SMARTS we really have a full suite of all kinds of capabilities,” Bailyn said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere else that has such a wide range of options.”

Not only will researchers be able to combine data from the WIYN and SMARTS telescopes with those at Keck, but faculty and graduate and undergraduate students who have previously had limited telescope observing time will now be able to use WIYN and SMARTS more frequently.

For example, Bailyn’s personal research with black holes requires the use of smaller telescopes, which had to be shared among a number of other faculty members. But with some of his colleagues now using Keck, Bailyn will have more time on the smaller telescopes. Bailyn added that he hopes the number of undergraduate students traveling to Arizona and Chile — currently one or two per year — would also increase thanks to Keck.

Collaboration between the various telescopes will have significant implications for Yale research, professors say. For example, at WIYN, Yale is building a new wide-field, high-resolution camera called the “One Degree Imager” (ODI) that will conduct deep surveys for rare objects like supernovae. Researchers will be able to take data from ODI surveys and then use Keck to determine more about the objects’ location and characteristics.

“The two — Keck and WIYN — are nicely complementary,” Urry said. “Having one enhances the value of the other.”

But the four astronomy majors interviewed — a quarter of the total number of undergraduates concentrating in the field — said that though they are excited about the new partnership, they are not sure Keck will directly benefit them anytime soon.

“I have no expectation to be able to observe on the Keck [telescopes],” Grant Potter ’10 said. “But I don’t doubt that there will be something of a trickle-down effect, providing better opportunities not only for professors, researchers and grad students, but for undergrads as well.”

AN OPEN TICKET

Professors and graduate students are not the only ones who will benefit from access to the telescopes, Urry said. Undergraduates may be able to take observing trips to Hawaii and participate in more off-campus research opportunities made possible by collaboration with Caltech and other members of the Keck Consortium.

Although some observing will be done remotely through computers at Yale, Urry said most projects will require a trip to Hawaii. An internal “Time Allocation Committee” will determine which Yale astronomers can use the Keck telescopes and allocate time based on proposals, which can be submitted by Yale faculty members and students alike, Kenney explained.

Funding for the travel, Urry said, will come primarily from grants from outside organizations.

But even the researchers who travel to Hawaii may not observe from the actual W. M. Keck Observatory. Because the 14,000-foot elevation of the station may temporarily affect researchers’ health, Kenney will observe from a visiting scientist facility in Waimea, a town far below the summit of the dormant volcano on which Keck is located.

Kenney left Tuesday to spend Thursday and Friday observing at Keck. He will be observing stellar population in the Virgo cluster of galaxies to learn more about star formation.

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