Profs scour Hawaiian sky

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Photo by Julian Spronck.

Astronomy professor Debra Fischer has spent some early mornings this fall peering into the Hawaiian night sky in search of new planets, using one of the world’s largest telescopes. But she has done so without leaving campus.

Through a 10-year, $12 million agreement in 2009, Yale purchased rights from the California Institute of Technology to use the telescope at Keck Observatory, which sits atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii, for 15 nights per year. Professors flew to Hawaii to use the facility until this January, when a set of computers were installed in Gibbs Laboratory as the first remote observation station for the Keck telescope on the East Coast. Five astronomy professors interviewed said the station has bolstered Yale’s image as a leader in the field of astronomy and dramatically expanded the research capabilities of the department.

Fischer said she would not have been able to teach and conduct her current research at the same time without the remote station.

“For me it means the difference between saying I can’t do [this project] anymore and saying I can do twice as much,” Fischer said.

The facility allows the Astronomy Department to shift more research toward the search for new planets, which astronomy professor Charles Bailyn called “one of the most exciting areas in astrophysics.” Bailyn said the remote station could attract professors whose research requires a large volume of observation time, such as Fischer, who joined the faculty last fall.

Bailyn said the telescope, which has one of the largest optical telescope mirrors in the world, excels at discovering new planets and spotting the most distant galaxies, which can help determine the evolution of the universe. He added that the ability to do remote research is still a recent innovation that became possible only within the last 10 years.

Apart from CalTech and the University of California system, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Yale are the only institutions with regular access to the telescope, Fischer said.

Fischer has sought new planets in part by measuring how potential planets change their velocity. Before the remote station was built, Fischer said she worried that she would have to drastically reduce her research time in order to maintain her teaching schedule since she would be traveling more than once each month. But at the station on campus, observing sessions usually last from 6 a.m. until noon, allowing her to teach a class the same afternoon. Fischer is using the station multiple nights per semester because her work requires extensive observations throughout the potential planet’s period of orbit. She is now following a set of 250 stars per year, whereas she had only been able to observe 100 per year in the past.

“I can do exactly the same thing here instead of in Hawaii,” Fischer said.

She added that she is partnering with researchers at CalTech and UC Berkeley, who can collect data for the earlier part of the night until she begins her 6 a.m. shift.

Other Yale professors, as well as graduate students, have also used the facility, though most researchers require less observation time that Fischer, said Marla Geha, an astronomy professor. She said one night of research can provide enough data for an entire year of analysis or form the basis for a Ph.D. thesis, Geha said.

Professors said the remote station allows graduate students to get more involved in professors’ research. Before its installation, graduate students would have had to fly to Hawaii, which could cost thousands of dollars, said Matt Giguere GRD ’15, who assists Fischer in her research.

Fischer said professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard have also collected data through the station.

The Keck Observatory stands at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which reaches about 14,000 feet above sea level.

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