infrared research opens our eyes to a richer universe
Skrutskie building telescope instrument design program
Skrutskie didnt have much choice when it came to choosing
a career in astronomy.
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.
by Jenny Gerow
professor Mike Skrutskie stands in what will be U.Va.s
instrumentation lab, which he and students will build.
came to U.Va. in August from the University of Massachusetts at
Amherst. Hes 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.
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. Theres
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Hes 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.
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.
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 birds-eye view of
the Milky Ways entire disk and central bar.
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.
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.
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.
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 Universitys
Fan Mountain Observatory near Charlottesville.
is already getting out about our plans for a new program in instrumentation
design, he said. Weve begun receiving interest
from very bright prospective students who want to become involved
in this exciting area of astronomy.