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A New Eye on the Sky

December 12, 2005

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With the addition of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation Telescope, Lewis & Clark’s astronomy program reaches new heights.

About 250 trillion miles from our planet, a pair of fiery yellow suns perform a dazzling celestial tango, so close that the stars seem to actually share mass as they whirl about each other at enormous speeds.

Meanwhile, inside a darkened observatory on the Lewis & Clark College campus, a solitary undergraduate, sustained only by a cup of hot tea and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, works through the night.

Kasandra Jorgensen, a junior from Pine, Colorado, spent last summer watching the stars dance through the night as part of a remarkable student-faculty research project spanning half a century at Lewis & Clark.

Since the mid-1950s, faculty and student astronomers at Lewis & Clark have studied 44i Bootis, a pair of orbiting stars located in the constellation Boötes (The Herdsman). Visible only by binoculars or telescope, these twin luminaries offer astronomers insights into the nature of binary stars and stellar evolution.

“I get to discover things,” marvels Jorgensen. The 20-year-old physics major has dreamed of becoming an astronomer since high school—when she read the novel Contact by Carl Sagan—but her work on the 44i Bootis project sealed the deal. “It gave me an appreciation for the work real astronomers are doing.” 

Late last summer, the astronomy program at Lewis & Clark received a significant boost with the debut of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation Telescope. Located in the Karle Observatory atop the Olin Center for Physics and Chemistry, the powerful, research-grade telescope boasts a design similar to the Hubble Space Telescope. With its 16-inch-diameter mirror and precision optics, the Ritchey Chretien–style telescope can gather 3,500 times more light than the naked eye, giving campus astronomers a deeper look into space than ever before—a vast improvement over the smaller telescopes previously used at the College.

The Fairchild Telescope “will dramatically enhance our students’ possibilities for getting directly involved in exploring astronomy,” says Stephen Tufte, assistant professor of physics.

The new telescope is computer controlled. With a click of the mouse on a “virtual planetarium,” the telescope whirs into motion to search for any object in the night sky. Point to the earth’s closest neighbor and the moon’s mountains and craters seem to explode through the lens. Seek out the fuzzy white blob of the Andromeda Galaxy and imagine the possibility of life over two million light-years away. 

Stargazing does pose challenges. Light pollution from the city and campus impairs visibility. And then there’s the weather, which anyone who has spent a winter in the Northwest knows tends to be, um, cloudy.

The new telescope is computer controlled. With a click of the mouse on a “virtual planetarium,” the telescope whirs into motion to search for any object in the night sky.

Still, getting a glimpse at the wonders of the universe through the Fairchild Telescope can be breathtaking.

“We get a lot of wows,” Tufte says.

“It’s really exciting that our school cares enough to get a telescope like this,” Jorgensen says.

“The telescope,” states Professor of Physics Herschel Snodgrass, “will transform our astronomy program.”

Lewis & Clark has earned itself a special niche in astronomy circles, thanks to the pioneering work of amateur astronomer-turned-professor James Karle, who taught at the College from the 1950s until 1985. Karle set about making the College’s first telescope, a 10-inch Newtonian reflector. With the help of a campus machinist, he built his telescope completely from scratch, even grinding the mirrors himself.

Starting in the mid-1950s, Karle and his students meticulously collected observational data about eclipsing binary stars—stars that pass in front of each other at certain points in their orbits, thus blocking out part of their light. Karle and his students plotted the stars’ light curves, or their fluctuations in brightness. In the 1950s, the changing light curves of many of those binary stars weren’t well known, so Karle was breaking new ground. For 20 years, the low-key astronomer recorded the findings on computer punch cards, publishing only a few papers.

Ring Nebula Lewis & Clark’s Fairchild Telescope captured this image of the  Ring Nebula, located 2,300 light-years from Earth. As the  central star dies, it emits ionized gas that glows in vivid  fluorescent colors. Photo produced by Dave Kendellen ’05,  Randi Miura ’06, and Stephan Brower ’05.

 

 

Karle gave up his research in the 1970s, and the old punch cards gathered dust until about 1990, when Snodgrass, then a relative newcomer to the physics faculty, asked about them. Snodgrass had once heard a noted astronomer remark that Lewis & Clark was well-regarded for its astronomy research, and he was curious.

The first order of business was finding a reader for the obsolete punch cards. When Snodgrass finally got a good look at the data, he found that it was exceptionally detailed and “clean.” Karle had taken precise light measurements of numerous binary stars, including 44i Bootis. Another astronomer analyzed Karle’s data on a pair of binary stars in the constellation Sagittarius to publish a paper in 1993 in Astronomical Journal. Perhaps most importantly, Snodgrass was inspired to resurrect the long-dormant binary star project.

Now, in the summers, two students, joined by a local high school teacher funded through a Partners in Science grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, take turns staying up to take pictures of 44i Bootis as the stars move about one another—one image every five minutes for about six hours. A typical ’scope shift begins at around 10 p.m. and ends when the sun—our sun, that is—starts to rise.

Through a telescope, 44i Bootis appears visible as a single star. However, the brightness of the stars varies slightly as they pass in front of each other, eclipsing about every three hours. The students plot the light over the course of the night on a graph, producing a smooth curve of the stars’ changing magnitude.

By tracking the light curves over many years, student researchers have determined that the stars are slowing down. They believe that the stars are actually transferring mass back and forth, and they are trying to understand exactly how that exchange happens and how it might affect the stars. Jorgensen and fellow physics major Satomi Sugaya ’07 investigated whether a planet might be in orbit with the stars after mathematical calculations turned up a slight anomaly. But the students concluded that chances of that were remote—the gravitational pull between the stars is likely too strong for a planet to maintain a stable orbit.

More important than any single discovery, students learn that real science isn’t found in textbooks but in hands-on work, says Thomas Olsen, associate professor of physics and current supervisor of the binary star project: “You get up here at night, point the telescope, take pictures, and do your own analysis.”

Christina Thompson, the Milwaukie High School teacher who participated in the project last summer, said the experience also enriched her teaching by keeping her up-to-date with science technology and research.

In 2001, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation awarded the College a $498,300 grant to enrich science education. About $105,000 paid for the new telescope and astronomical equipment, including an electronic camera and a spectrograph. The College funded observatory upgrades.

With the Fairchild Telescope, the binary star project will grow to explore fainter star pairs, allowing student researchers to compare their findings to data taken at the College over previous decades. In addition, students enrolled in Deep Space Astronomy and Advanced Physics Lab will incorporate the telescope into their work. The powerful instrument makes entirely new research projects possible—measuring the rotation of asteroids, tracking the size of the polar ice caps on Mars, maybe even seeking out new supernovae in distant galaxies.

Yet the telescope’s greatest impact could be on nonscience students—the humanities and social science majors in Physics 105, Astronomy. The professors who teach the course make a point of not making it a “Moons-for-Goons” elective. They cover topics ranging from things students can see, like the moon’s phases, to the theoretical underpinnings of cosmology, heady stuff about the origins of the universe.

“A lot of these students don’t have many preconceived notions,” Tufte says. “Sometimes the simplest ideas, like the fact that galaxies are moving away from one another or that stars are really suns, are new.”

To enthusiastic teachers like Tufte and his colleagues, such open-minded students present an opportunity. By using the Fairchild Telescope, nonscience students will not only learn astronomy, but will also get a taste of the painstaking yet rewarding work of observation and analysis that are at the heart of the scientific enterprise. They will get to do mini projects, like analyzing the spectra of stars to determine their composition and temperature. Starting next summer, the college also will host public stargazing nights.

Sadly, Karle himself did not get a chance to see the new telescope. He died in January 2003. But he knew that Lewis & Clark would one day expand its astronomy program. Back in the 1970s when he supervised the building of the observatory that bears his name, he made the dome large enough to accommodate a bigger telescope than what was currently in use. “He was thinking beyond the time he was going to be around,” Olsen says. “He was dreaming of this day.”

 Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland. 

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