Johns Hopkins University Gains NASA Grant to Study Cosmos with Advanced CameraA $20 million eight-year grant will aid a small team of world-class astronomers, predominantly from The Johns Hopkins University, as they pursue some of the most fundamental questions about the nature and structure of the universe.
Funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will fuel scientific research with the highly evolved Advanced Camera for Surveys, which is scheduled for launch and coupling to the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2000.
We are trying to focus on a small number of the outstanding questions in astronomy, said Holland Ford, professor of astronomy at Hopkins and the project s principal investigator. The camera will provide sensors with twice the resolution of the wide field planetary camera now in use on Hubble and gather data at 10 to 20 times the present efficiency. This will translate into big gains for all the people who use the telescope for surveys.
As news of the grant reached the team at Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute, members of Ford s team prepared for the first round of thermal and vacuum testing with engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md. At Ball Aerospace, in Boulder, Colo., technicians have prepared the recently built instrument hardware for shipment at the end of this month. With optical calibration testing scheduled for the beginning of next year, Ford noted that the project is now on a fast track.
Generally, the team aims to investigate the formation and evolution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as well as to research one of astronomers most vexing puzzles--the nature and distribution of the mysterious dark matter that makes up the greatest bulk of the universe.
The new technology will greatly extend the reach and clarity of the space telescope with three cameras that should yield more sweeping, panoramic views, improved ultraviolet capabilities and a more acute sensor for detecting faint objects normally obscured by the illumination of bright ones.
A coronagraph on the Advance Camera System will be particularly helpful, Ford said, as the astronomers search our solar system s most famous nearby binary star, Alpha Centauri, for the existence of planets.
Capable of blocking out 99 percent of external light as well as masking light defracted by optics inside the camera, the coronagraph will let scientists scour the Alpha Centauri system for large objects. Enhancing the space telescope s present contrasting ability significantly, the new instrument improves chances of discovering Jupiter-sized planets around Alpha Centauri. Although there is no evidence that such a planet exists now, the possibility excites astronomers like Ford who actually can imagine members of some future generation traveling 4.3 light-years to explore their most beguiling neighboring planets.
I think it s one of the most exciting programs I ve ever undertaken, Ford said. There s no assurance of success, but then we re finding that planets are very common, even in totally unexpected environments. Although we have no evidence now that there are planets there, if a Jupiter-mass planet is in the right zone, we have a greater chance of finding it with this new technology. Nature seems to be more clever in making planets than we had ever imagined possible.
With an improved ability to look back in time, scientists hope to find more answers to the puzzle of dark matter as the apparent controlling force in the development of the universe. Such a basic question would help resolve conflicting notions of how matter is distributed.
Present generations of astronomers, for example, have considered a variety of possibilities: that the distribution is relatively uniform like raisins in a cake; like a mass of soap bubbles with discreet walls of separation; like a sponge, which has walls but also corridors of interconnection. The growing realization that most matter is dark and of an unfamiliar kind directly effects scientists understanding of physics at the origins of the universe.
As we look back further, Ford said, we want to see how the distribution of matter develops. We know already that it drives the evolution of galaxies and clusters, but we want to understand how dark matter promotes that evolution.
The new instrument will also outperform the largest ground-based telescopes with an astronomical technique called lensing. Due to an especially propitious property of nature, large collections of matter, such as clusters of galaxies, can be so massive that they actually warp space in their vicinity. This is especially valuable to the astronomer because light from more distant galaxies that would otherwise be masked by the cluster suddenly appears greatly magnified from Earth. These gravitational telescopes, as astronomers call them, will greatly improve the task of mapping and measuring dark matter distribution and distant galaxies in greater detail.
Although the science team includes researchers from California, Arizona, Colorado and Goddard, most of its members work on Hopkins Homewood campus, either in the school s department of physics and astronomy or at the Space Telescope Science Institute, located across the street.
Besides supporting researchers, the NASA grant will be used to hire 10 to 12 post-doctoral scientists, who will work at Hopkins, and portions of it will be used to pay graduate students and undergraduates who work on the project.
Everyone will be hired by Jan. 1, 2000, then we will have five years of science after launch, Ford said. We can now go deeper, we can go wider, and we ll have twice the resolution of the present camera. The gains are very quantifiable. Other members of the team from Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute include: Robert Brown, Chris Burrows, Mark Clampin, Paul Feldman, David Golimowski, George Hartig, Marc Postman, Marc Rafal, Bill Sparks, Zlatan Tsvetanov, and Rick White. Randy Kimble and Ed Cheng, of Goddard Space Flight Center, are also members of the Maryland team.
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