Feb. 2-14, 2002
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Skrutskie building telescope instrument design program

His infrared research ‘opens our eyes to a richer universe’
Skrutskie building telescope instrument design program

By Fariss Samarrai

Michael Skrutskie didn’t have much choice when it came to choosing a career in astronomy.

“From the time I was 4 years old, I was fascinated by the universe, the natural world,” he said. “I was interested in the stars, in volcanoes, in hurricanes. I grew up reading and learning about these things, and taking apart devices to see how they worked. I became a scientist and a designer of instruments more out of necessity than by choice. The universe is alluring, compelling, inspirational. I had to become an astronomer,” said the 42-year-old.

Michael Skrutskie
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Astronomy professor Mike Skrutskie stands in what will be U.Va.’s instrumentation lab, which he and students will build.

He came to U.Va. in August from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He’s on a mission to establish a program here in telescope instrument design. Such a program will help the department attract and recruit high-quality students, and give the department an opportunity to contribute directly to the development of hardware for new and existing telescopes.

“New instruments are a great bargaining chip for more time on non-U.Va. telescopes,” Skrutskie said. “We can trade our expertise ansd new instruments for more nights on large telescopes. There’s no doubt that a strong instrument program attracts strong students, the ones who want to learn how to design and build these instruments, and the ones who want access to important telescopes around the world.”

The University presently is negotiating a contract to join a consortium of universities building the Large Binocular Telescope, an Arizona optical observatory that will be one of the largest in the world. Recent news articles have reported that Apache leaders in Arizona are opposed to construction of the telescope project. If U.Va. joins the consortium, the astronomy department would contribute detection instruments for the telescope as part of the agreement.

“Instrumentation design and development has become an extremely important area of astronomy,” Skrutskie said. “Since the 1980s, our ability to image the skies has jumped by leaps and bounds because of new observing technology in the infrared, radio and x-ray regions of the spectrum. For thousands of years astronomers observed the skies using only visible light, but only a fraction of the phenomena in the universe can be seen that way. In recent years we have gained amazing new insights about our universe because we have new ways of surveying it.”

Skrutskie specializes in constructing infrared cameras and spectrographs, devices that are able to penetrate the cosmic haze and detect and measure “heat” coming from stars and other bodies. While at Amherst, he served as the principal investigator for the Two-Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a major infrared survey project.

“Mike Skrutskie is one of the leading and most versatile instrumentalists in the field,” said Robert T. Rood, chair of the Department of Astronomy. “2MASS is one of the most successful instrument projects of the past decade, and Mike led the way in its development. He’s also very experienced with small instrumentation projects. This is a great attraction for students to our new program. They will get some real hands-on experience under a superb leader.”

“In 20 or so years, infrared astronomy has caught up to optical astronomy in terms of the ability to capture detailed ‘colorful’ images and dissect starlight into rich revealing spectra,” Skrutskie said. “These newfound capabilities effectively extend the reach of our senses. Our eyes have been opened, and we see a much richer universe as a result.”

Skrutskie, who received his undergrad degree in physics and graduate degree in astronomy both from Cornell University, recently presented a new view of our home galaxy at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Using 2MASS, he and colleagues were able to provide the first-ever “bird’s-eye view” of the Milky Way’s entire disk and central bar.

“This result would not have been possible without infrared astronomy,” he said. “We were able to measure distances to individual stars and construct a picture of the galaxy as if we were observing from some distant vantage point rather than from within the Milky Way. This is impossible optically, because visible starlight does not penetrate the obscuring dust that fills our galaxy. This dust is largely transparent to infrared light.”

Optical telescopes can be fitted with infrared sensors, he said, allowing astronomers to complement the capabilities of both types of telescopes. “By equipping even small telescopes with infrared detectors, we are able to greatly increase our observational ability and to obtain substantially more observing time. Viewing nights on large telescopes is at a premium, but small and mid-size telescopes are readily available, and with infrared instruments, we can often accomplish more with smaller telescopes.

“The most important aspect to me is that instrumenting small telescopes provides greater opportunity for students, particularly undergraduates, to experience the process of designing and fabricating an instrument from start to finish. I came to U.Va. because the environment here is particularly ripe for this sort of activity.”

Skrutskie presently is overseeing the renovation of a large room in the Astronomy Building for use as an instrument design and construction lab for students and faculty. Later this year, with plenty of help from students, he plans to begin building new instruments, including ones to enhance the capabilities of the University’s Fan Mountain Observatory near Charlottesville.

“Word is already getting out about our plans for a new program in instrumentation design,” he said. “We’ve begun receiving interest from very bright prospective students who want to become involved in this exciting area of astronomy.”


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