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U.Va. Student Jeff Crane Studies The Stars And Creates The Tools To Track Them

May 7, 2004 -- During Jeff Crane’s seven years as an astronomy graduate student at the University of Virginia, he has been up all night many nights operating a console that looks like it could steer the space shuttle. It does aim and operate a sizable telescope.

“Telescope time is precious,” he said recently as he stood at U.Va.’s Fan Mountain Observatory, staring off into space, so to speak.

Crane is in love with the cosmos.

“It’s great up here at night,” he said. “I usually work by myself, absorbed in my observations of the dark and clear sky full of stars.”

He drinks a lot of coffee “to stay coherent.”

But while Crane always knew he wanted to study the stars, he didn’t know when he came to U.Va. that his career path would veer to a merging of science and technology. As he has studied the structure of the Milky Way, he has also learned to design some of the instruments that are used to observe the far reaches of the universe.

Crane is the astronomy department’s first Ph.D. graduate in its new instrument design program. These days, astronomy students are building spectrographs and infrared cameras that are giving new sight to old optical telescopes.

“When I came here, there was no real program for instrument design, but a real need to make the Fan Mountain Observatory a more viable research facility,” Crane said.

The new program is led by astronomy professor Mike Skrutskie, a leading instrumentalist who came to U.Va. in 2001. The program is attracting high-quality students and contributing directly to the development of hardware for new and existing telescopes at U.Va. and elsewhere.

While working on his dissertation, Crane has also spent the past four years building and installing a spectrograph at the Fan Mountain Observatory in southern Albemarle County. A spectrograph breaks white light into its component colors, allowing astronomers to view wavelengths and thereby determine the distances and sizes of stars.

This new instrument enhances and broadens the capabilities of the Fan Mountain 40-inch telescope.

“This is part of a big effort to get the observatory into a research-ready state,” Crane said.

By adding the spectrograph, and a forthcoming infrared camera, the Fan Mountain Observatory is becoming a more valuable research facility, despite the relatively small size of its optical telescopes.

Crane’s dissertation involves refining a method for measuring the nearby mass of the Milky Way. It’s a problem he could spend his life trying to solve. His adviser is astronomer Steve Majewski, a leading galaxy researcher who recently earned a great deal of media coverage for his discovery of our Milky Way’s cannibalization of the smaller Sagittarius Galaxy.

After graduation, Crane, an Arizona native, is headed to Pasadena, Calif., where he will build a new spectrograph to be used for planetary searches by the Carnegie Observatories. But like many U.Va. students, he hopes to someday return to Charlottesville.

“I like the trees here, the University, the astronomy department,” he said. “I’d like to find my way back.”

Contact: Fariss Samarrui, (434) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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