This is an infrared image of
the brown dwarf binary HD 130948BC, obtained with the
Keck II adaptive optics system. The binary is seen to
the upper left, in orbit around a young, much more massive,
Sun-like star that is about 600 million years old.
Mr. Trent Dupuy and Dr. Michael Liu (Institute for Astronomy,
University of Hawaii).
Send your comments on this issue of Cosmic Matters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This high angular resolution image was
obtained with the laser guide star adaptive optics system
on the Keck II Telescope. It shows that the reddish brown
dwarf actually exists in a binary system. Credit: Michael
Liu, University of Hawaii.
Measuring the masses of brown dwarfs — the lightest objects
ever weighed outside the Solar System — has been a painstaking
process that would have been impossible without ultra-sharp
images taken with the Keck II Telescope and its world-leading
adaptive optics system. These images have such high angular
resolution that if a human’s eyes could act like the
Keck’s adaptive optics system, he or she would be able
to read a magazine from a mile away.
The positional accuracy achieved with such sharp images has
enabled astronomers Michael Liu and Trent Dupuy of the Institute
for Astronomy at the University of Hawai’i and Michael
Ireland of the University of Sydney to determine — for
the first time ever — the masses of the coldest brown
dwarfs. Interestingly, their results are somewhat at odds with
current theoretical predictions, challenging astronomers’ understanding
of such cold objects.
This image shows the parts per billion
of methane released globally on Mars during summer in
the planet’s northern hemisphere.
Image courtesy of NASA.
It’s official—Mars has gas. Scientists recently
confirmed that certain regions
of the planet release methane into the Martian atmosphere.
These findings open new questions about whether life exists
on the Red Planet.
Earlier research suggested methane existed in the Martian atmosphere,
but the results were ambiguous. Now, Michael Mumma of the NASA
Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and his colleagues
have carefully observed the planet for three Martian years—the
equivalent of seven Earth years. Using the W. M. Keck and the
NASA Infrared telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the team zeroed
in on the atmosphere of the Red Planet, which ranges between
36 million to over 250 million miles from Earth depending on
the planets’ orbits. The new data definitely shows that
Mars is alive either biologically or geochemically.
But since astronomers can’t yet tell if the methane is
a byproduct of biological or geological processes, it is almost
as if the planet is “egging us on and challenging us
by saying, ‘Hey, find out what this means’,” Mumma
Andrea Ghez gets animated as she discusses
black holes during her 2006 talk, which was part of Keck’s
special Evenings with Astronomers series.
Credit: Sarah Anderson, WMKO.
Atmospheric turbulence causes stars to twinkle and blurs
cosmic images making it difficult for astronomers to know if
they are looking at one object or two, or even more. This turbulence
trips up even the largest telescopes, including the twin Kecks.
Veteran observers Andrea Ghez of the University of California,
Los Angeles and Claire Max of the University of California
Santa Cruz (UCSC), however, have, respectively advanced and
pioneered techniques to make the stars stop twinkling — at
least from Keck’s perspective. For this and other work,
Ghez has been named a MacArthur Genius, and Max has earned
Princeton’s Madison Medal.
Ghez was inducted into the MacArthur Fellows Program in September
2008. The program encourages writers, scientists, artists,
social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs and others
of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual
and professional goals. Ghez has spent almost a decade exploiting
two techniques, speckle imaging, which digitally combines very
short telescopic exposures, and adaptive optics, which corrects
for atmospheric turbulence to map the movement of a group of
These stars sit in the Sagittarius constellation near the center
of our Milky Way galaxy. From her team’s observations, Ghez discovered
that some of the stars orbit the Galactic Center at
velocities that are fractions of the speed of light. The stars’ motions
provide the strongest evidence for the theory that a supermassive
black hole sits in the center of the Milky Way.
“The study of the black hole at the Galactic Center by
Dr. Ghez is clearly one of the most impactful results that
Keck Observatory has produced,” says Taft Armandroff,
director of the Observatory. “To me, this work underscores
the discovery potential of adaptive optics and observational
programs spanning many years. Dr. Ghez’s award is well deserved.”
Winning the fellowship will allow Ghez to take more risks and
pursue new ideas and areas in her research, she says. One of
her ideas is to detect dark matter at the center of
the Milky Way. She
is also interested in studying the center of globular clusters
to look for the elusive intermediate mass black hole and in
studying the center of other galaxies to understand star formation
in extreme environments outside our galaxy.
But, Ghez says, “right now there is still so very much
to do at the center of our galaxy.” She is now focusing
her research on understanding how the galaxy’s
central black hole interacts with the stars, gas and dust that
Claire Max discusses adaptive optics during her 2007 Evenings with Astronomers lecture. Credit: Sarah Anderson, WMKO.
Claire Max also makes ground-based telescopes see more clearly
with adaptive optics. She is a co-inventor of the laser guide
star adaptive optics systems used for astronomical research.
For her work in this field, and her study of plasma physics,
astronomy and astronomical instrumentation, Princeton University
has honored Max with the 2009 James Madison Medal.
Early in her career, Max studied laser fusion at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory, where she focused on laser-plasma interactions.
Now, she directs the Center for Adaptive Optics, which is headquartered
at UCSC. For her personal research, Max uses adaptive optics
to study merging black holes at the centers of galaxies.
“Without Max’s leadership in implementing adaptive
optics at Keck, many of our greatest contributions would not
have happened. We join Princeton University in taking pride in
such an impactful scientist,” Armandroff says.
Max earned her PhD from Princeton in 1972. The Association
of Princeton Graduate Alumni awards the Madison Medal each
year to a graduate student alumnus who has had a distinguished
career, advanced the cause of graduate education or achieved
an outstanding record of public service. Max is the first woman
to receive the award, which is named for the fourth US president
who many consider to be Princeton’s first graduate student.
She received her medal and delivered an address during Princeton’s
Alumni Day on Feb. 21, 2009.
The W. M. Keck Observatory opened its doors
in October 2008 to celebrate the International Year of
Astronomy or IYA 2009. Credit: Deborah Cooper.
W. M. Keck Observatory invited throngs of visitors to experience its world-leading astronomy
enterprise during a greatly anticipated Open House on October
12, 2008. Advancement services coordinator Joan Campbell and executive assistant Leslie Kissner coordinated the event, which was held at company headquarters in Waimea. Throughout the day, Keck’s professional staff engaged guests in activites letting them explore the Observatory’s astronomy research and technological
Local resident Sharon Petrosky says she felt “connected
to something bigger,” as she, along with hundreds of
other visitors, gained an appreciation of the world-class Observatory located in their backyard. “I am learning so much
about light, about space, about sound. Sound, for instance,
is simply a vibration,” Petrosky says. “I’ve
had so many compelling revelations today.”
The stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2009 heralded the traditional celebrations of New Year's Eve. It also launched the first global
celebration of modern astronomy. Known as the International
Year of Astronomy, or IYA
2009, the event has inspired organizations and institutions
around the world to host activities commemorating the first
400 years of modern astronomy—an era that began in 1609
when Galileo first turned his telescope to the stars.
Keck Observatory kicked off its own IYA celebration during
its well-attended Open House on October
12, 2008. The Observatory is also very proud to host
the 2009 Maunakea Lecture series to commemorate IYA in a year
long program that shares with listeners the world class research taking
place on Mauna Kea. The directors of the Mauna Kea Observatories
will give the monthly lectures at the Observatory's headquarters in Waimea and at the
Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo throughout 2009. The talks offer a chance for the speakers to engage the public
in a discussion about the research taking place at their respective facilities, inspiring audience members to embrace the Year’s central theme—The
Universe, Yours to Discover.
On Jan. 15, Chad Kalepa Baybayan, the ‘Imiloa Astronomy
Center’s Navigator in Residence, gave the inaugural 2009
Maunakea Lecture at Keck Observatory’s Hualalai Learning
Theater. Baybayan’s talk, “Traditional Hawaiian
Navigation and Sky Lore,” discussed how early Hawaiians
used their powers of observation to understand the movement
of the stars, as well as the conditions of the ocean and environment,
to navigate the Pacific Ocean.
’Imiloa Astronomy Center’s
Navigator in Residence, Chad Kalepa Baybayan, gave the
inaugural 2009 Mauna Kea Lecture at Keck Observatory
in January. Photo Courtesy of 'Imiloa Astronomy Center.
Worldwide more than 130 countries have planned events to
let citizens appreciate astronomy and its contributions to
society and culture. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Astronomical Union, which initiated IYA, hosted the
Year’s kick-off party on Jan. 15 and Jan. 16 in Paris. Close to 800 government representatives,
diplomats, scientists, astronomy undergraduates, astronauts,
industrialists and artists mingled and listened to Nobel laureates’ thoughts
on astronomy and on the humbling power that observing the heavens
can have for all of humanity.