Sunday, February 21, 2010

Type Ia Supernovae: the mystery continues

Artists Conception of Merging White Dwarfs 

This week, astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory announced that they could put stringent limits on the types of objects that make Type Ia supernovae based on X-ray observations of galaxies.  Here are stories from Universe Today and Sky & Telescope.  My thoughts in summary: this study is useful work but doesn't clarify the very muddied waters of Type Ia supernova progenitors.  So, let's take a look at what Type Ia supernovae are, why they are interesting to astronomers, what the new study says, and why it is controversial.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Typical nights at the telescope

The Keck Observatory control room 
Our observing team and observing support staff sitting in the Keck Observatory 
control room last week. Image Credit: M. Bolte
If you read enough comics (especially The Far Side),  you'll eventually come across a sketch of an astronomer at the telescope.  Inevitably, this astronomer is wearing a lab coat, sitting in a chair on the floor of the telescope dome, looking through an eyepiece and making notes in a notebook.  Add in the likelihood that these cartoon astronomers are inevitably male and that the telescope sticks out the slit in the dome, and you have the picture that most people have when they think of astronomers.  (Here's a good example incorporating almost all of those stereotypes: Off The Mark from January 16 2006).
However, this stereotype of astronomers and telescope observing is almost completely wrong.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Identifying white dwarfs

My run on the Keck Telescope earlier this week involved looking for white dwarf stars and taking spectroscopic measurements of them.  I got a couple of Twitter queries about how this works, and whether I had truly discovered previously unknown objects.  So, I thought I'd explain the process of what I was doing a bit more.  Another day I'll try and explain why I went through these pains.

Monday, February 08, 2010

At the Keck Observatory

Keck Telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea
Image Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory

Last night and tonight, I am on the Big Island of Hawaii using the Keck I telescope at the W. M Keck Observatory.  The twin Keck telescopes are two of the biggest telescopes in the world, and have produced a lot of outstanding science in their 19 years of existence.

Many people assume we use larger telescopes because they can magnify things more than smaller telescopes.  Most of the time, this is not true.  Earth's atmosphere blurs images so much that just about any professional telescope can see the sharpest details the atmosphere allows (more on this later).  In fact the Hubble Space Telescope, if it were on the Earth, would be considered a moderately small telescope -- it's the fact that Hubble is above Earth's blurring atmosphere that makes it such a powerful tool.

The main reason many astronomers use big telescopes is to collect more light.  The larger the aperture of the telescope (in other words, the bigger the mirror), the more light the telescope collects.  When you study faint objects, which most astronomers do, collecting more light often means you can do more rigorous science.  There are limits, which is why astronomers aren't all trying to use the largest telescopes every night.  If a planet, star or galaxy you want to study is bright enough that you can get the information you need with a smaller telescope, then you want to use the smaller telescope, saving time on the big telescopes for projects that need all of that glass.

My studies on this observing run involve white dwarf stars, the glowing embers of normal stars that have finished their life cycles.  The white dwarfs I'm studying are 22nd magnitude in visible light. (Magnitudes are a way of measuring how bright a star appears to be.)  The faintest star you can see with your own eye on a very dark, clear night is around 6; magnitude 22 stars are about 3 million times fainter than this.  That's why I need a big telescope!

In recent years, technology has allowed astronomers to use lasers and flexible mirrors to correct for Earth's atmospheric distortion.  When working, these corrective measures (called adaptive optics) actually allow larger telescopes to see finer details, or effectively magnify images more, than smaller telescopes.  For that reason, some astronomers now do use the big telescopes to look at bright stars.  This work has allowed astronomers to take some of the first direct pictures of planets around other stars, and to take very sharp pictures of planets and moons in our Solar System.

Still, most astronomers use big telescopes to collect more light, not to see sharper.  My white dwarfs are so small that even the mighty Keck Telescope would have no hope of allowing us to see the surface of the nearest white dwarf star -- we would need a telescope with a diameter of roughly 3000 km to do that!