Saturday, December 03, 2005

From one telescope to another

Well, I "survived" a rather pleasant trip to use the Keck I Telescope on the Big Island of Hawaii. have since returned to Arizona and driven up to Kitt Peak, a telescope about 60 miles west of Tucson. I'm already worn out, and I still have four nights to go!

At the Keck Observatory, I was looking for white dwarfs, the remains of stars that have run out of nuclear fuel. These dwarfs are a lot like the glowing embers in a dying fire -- they are hot from the heat of the nuclear engine of the parent star, but they make no new energy. So, like the embers of a fire, white dwarfs slowly cool off, getting fainter and fainter. My fellow scientists and I are using this property to figure out how old the white dwarfs are. By finding the faintest white dwarfs in a group of stars, we have a pretty good idea how old those stars are!

Anyway, we found lots of white dwarfs during our stay, including some that are very mysterious -- they look different than most of the white dwarfs we found. Now I just have to figure out what that means!

Here at Kitt Peak, I'm looking at something completely different -- I'm looking at groups of galaxies far, far away. Where the white dwarfs above are all "only" 3000 light-years from Earth, these galaxies are a few billion light-years a way! With a little clear weather, I'll try to get a picture up within the next day or two.

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