Front Page Winter 2005 Chronicle A New Eye on the Sky

Sherman Fairchild Foundation TelescopeA New Eye on the Sky

With the addition of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation Telescope, Lewis & Clark’s astronomy program reaches new heights.

by Romel Hernandez

About 250 trillion miles from our planet, a pair of fiery yellow suns perform a dazzling celestial tango, so close that the stars seem to actually share mass as they whirl about each other at enormous speeds.

Meanwhile, inside a darkened observatory on the Lewis & Clark College campus, a solitary undergraduate, sustained only by a cup of hot tea and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, works through the night.

Kasandra Jorgensen, a junior from Pine, Colorado, spent last summer watching the stars dance through the night as part of a remarkable student-faculty research project spanning half a century at Lewis & Clark.

Since the mid-1950s, faculty and student astronomers at Lewis & Clark have studied 44i Bootis, a pair of orbiting stars located in the constellation Boötes (The Herdsman). Visible only by binoculars or telescope, these twin luminaries offer astronomers insights into the nature of binary stars and stellar evolution.

"I get to discover things," marvels Jorgensen. The 20-year-old physics major has dreamed of becoming an astronomer since high school—when she read the novel Contact by Carl Sagan—but her work on the 44i Bootis project sealed the deal. "It gave me an appreciation for the work real astronomers are doing."

Late last summer, the astronomy program at Lewis & Clark received a significant boost with the debut of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation Telescope. Located in the Karle Observatory atop the Olin Center for Physics and Chemistry, the powerful, research-grade telescope boasts a design similar to the Hubble Space Telescope. With its 16-inch-diameter mirror and precision optics, the Ritchey Chretien–style telescope can gather 3,500 times more light than the naked eye, giving campus astronomers a deeper look into space than ever before—a vast improvement over the smaller telescopes previously used at the College.

The Fairchild Telescope "will dramatically enhance our students’ possibilities for getting directly involved in exploring astronomy," says Stephen Tufte, assistant professor of physics.

The new telescope is computer controlled. With a click of the mouse on a "virtual planetarium," the telescope whirs into motion to search for any object in the night sky. Point to the earth’s closest neighbor and the moon’s mountains and craters seem to explode through the lens. Seek out the fuzzy white blob of the Andromeda Galaxy and imagine the possibility of life over two million light-years away.

Stargazing does pose challenges. Light pollution from the city and campus impairs visibility. And then there’s the weather, which anyone who has spent a winter in the Northwest knows tends to be, um, cloudy.

The new telescope is computer controlled. With a click of the mouse on a “virtual planetarium,” the telescope whirs into motion to search for any object in the night sky.

Still, getting a glimpse at the wonders of the universe through the Fairchild Telescope can be breathtaking.

"We get a lot of wows," Tufte says.

"It’s really exciting that our school cares enough to get a telescope like this," Jorgensen says.

"The telescope," states Professor of Physics Herschel Snodgrass, "will transform our astronomy program."

Lewis & Clark has earned itself a special niche in astronomy circles, thanks to the pioneering work of amateur astronomer-turned-professor James Karle, who taught at the College from the 1950s until 1985. Karle set about making the College’s first telescope, a 10-inch Newtonian reflector. With the help of a campus machinist, he built his telescope completely from scratch, even grinding the mirrors himself.

Starting in the mid-1950s, Karle and his students meticulously collected observational data about eclipsing binary stars—stars that pass in front of each other at certain points in their orbits, thus blocking out part of their light. Karle and his students plotted the stars’ light curves, or their fluctuations in brightness. In the 1950s, the changing light curves of many of those binary stars weren’t well known, so Karle was breaking new ground. For 20 years, the low-key astronomer recorded the findings on computer punch cards, publishing only a few papers.

Ring NebulaLewis & Clark’s Fairchild Telescope captured this image of the Ring Nebula, located 2,300 light-years from Earth. As the central star dies, it emits ionized gas that glows in vivid fluorescent colors. Photo produced by Dave Kendellen ’05, Randi Miura ’06, and Stephan Brower ’05.

Karle gave up his research in the 1970s, and the old punch cards gathered dust until about 1990, when Snodgrass, then a relative newcomer to the physics faculty, asked about them. Snodgrass had once heard a noted astronomer remark that Lewis & Clark was well-regarded for its astronomy research, and he was curious.

The first order of business was finding a reader for the obsolete punch cards. When Snodgrass finally got a good look at the data, he found that it was exceptionally detailed and "clean." Karle had taken precise light measurements of numerous binary stars, including 44i Bootis. Another astronomer analyzed Karle’s data on a pair of binary stars in the constellation Sagittarius to publish a paper in 1993 in Astronomical Journal. Perhaps most importantly, Snodgrass was inspired to resurrect the long-dormant binary star project.

Now, in the summers, two students, joined by a local high school teacher funded through a Partners in Science grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, take turns staying up to take pictures of 44i Bootis as the stars move about one another—one image every five minutes for about six hours. A typical ’scope shift begins at around 10 p.m. and ends when the sun—our sun, that is—starts to rise.

Through a telescope, 44i Bootis appears visible as a single star. However, the brightness of the stars varies slightly as they pass in front of each other, eclipsing about every three hours. The students plot the light over the course of the night on a graph, producing a smooth curve of the stars’ changing magnitude.

By tracking the light curves over many years, student researchers have determined that the stars are slowing down. They believe that the stars are actually transferring mass back and forth, and they are trying to understand exactly how that exchange happens and how it might affect the stars. Jorgensen and fellow physics major Satomi Sugaya ’07 investigated whether a planet might be in orbit with the stars after mathematical calculations turned up a slight anomaly. But the students concluded that chances of that were remote—the gravitational pull between the stars is likely too strong for a planet to maintain a stable orbit.

More important than any single discovery, students learn that real science isn’t found in textbooks but in hands-on work, says Thomas Olsen, associate professor of physics and current supervisor of the binary star project: "You get up here at night, point the telescope, take pictures, and do your own analysis."

Christina Thompson, the Milwaukie High School teacher who participated in the project last summer, said the experience also enriched her teaching by keeping her up-to-date with science technology and research.

In 2001, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation awarded the College a $498,300 grant to enrich science education. About $105,000 paid for the new telescope and astronomical equipment, including an electronic camera and a spectrograph. The College funded observatory upgrades.

With the Fairchild Telescope, the binary star project will grow to explore fainter star pairs, allowing student researchers to compare their findings to data taken at the College over previous decades. In addition, students enrolled in Deep Space Astronomy and Advanced Physics Lab will incorporate the telescope into their work. The powerful instrument makes entirely new research projects possible—measuring the rotation of asteroids, tracking the size of the polar ice caps on Mars, maybe even seeking out new supernovae in distant galaxies.

Yet the telescope’s greatest impact could be on nonscience students—the humanities and social science majors in Physics 105, Astronomy. The professors who teach the course make a point of not making it a "Moons-for-Goons" elective. They cover topics ranging from things students can see, like the moon’s phases, to the theoretical underpinnings of cosmology, heady stuff about the origins of the universe.

"A lot of these students don’t have many preconceived notions," Tufte says. "Sometimes the simplest ideas, like the fact that galaxies are moving away from one another or that stars are really suns, are new."

To enthusiastic teachers like Tufte and his colleagues, such open-minded students present an opportunity. By using the Fairchild Telescope, nonscience students will not only learn astronomy, but will also get a taste of the painstaking yet rewarding work of observation and analysis that are at the heart of the scientific enterprise. They will get to do mini projects, like analyzing the spectra of stars to determine their composition and temperature. Starting next summer, the college also will host public stargazing nights.

Sadly, Karle himself did not get a chance to see the new telescope. He died in January 2003. But he knew that Lewis & Clark would one day expand its astronomy program. Back in the 1970s when he supervised the building of the observatory that bears his name, he made the dome large enough to accommodate a bigger telescope than what was currently in use. "He was thinking beyond the time he was going to be around," Olsen says. "He was dreaming of this day."

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

Back to Winter 2005 Chronicle

Lewis & Clark’s ‘Star’ Faculty

Stephen Tufte

Stephen Tufte
Assistant Professor of Physics
Ph.D.: University of Wisconsin at Madison
Joined College: 1999

The Milky Way is made up of stars, planets, and a myriad of other celestial objects. But Stephen Tufte is far more interested in the strange stuff in between everything else: the interstellar medium.

Tufte studies clouds of ionized hydrogen for clues to how galaxies and stars form and evolve. These clouds can reach 10 million times the sun’s mass and stretch 10,000 light-years, moving hundreds of kilometers per second. But only recently have astronomers like Tufte been able to detect and study these clouds.

To do research, Tufte uses the Wisconsin H-Alpha Mapper (WHAM) at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona. (He contributed to the design and construction of the telescope while a graduate student.) He operates WHAM from his home or office via the Internet, which renders the universe uniquely portable.

Tufte and his colleagues in Wisconsin recently completed the WHAM Northern Sky Survey, one of the first comprehensive mapping projects showing the distribution and movement of ionized hydrogen in the Milky Way. According to Tufte, these detailed maps of the galaxy are inspiring rich new avenues of astronomical research.

Thomas Olsen

Thomas Olsen
Associate Professor of Physics
Ph.D.: University of Southern California
Joined College: 1982

Thomas Olsen supervises the College’s binary star research project, an initiative that began in the mid-1950s with James Karle, professor of physics. In addition to working with student astronomers at Lewis & Clark, Olsen mentors an area high school teacher for a two-year term in conjunction with the program. He also serves as adviser of Lewis & Clark’s Society of Physics Students, which has been recognized as an outstanding chapter nationally for three of the past four years.

Olsen’s research interests are most closely tied to fluid dynamics, the study of how substances behave “chaotically” in space and time. His most recent work has to do with Taylor-Couette flow, examining the properties of viscous fluid moving between two concentric cylinders. By examining the fluid as it flows in unusual ways under different experimental conditions, Olsen can run calculations describing and predicting its behavior.

Along with a colleague at Pacific University, Olsen is applying chaos theory—simply put, the study of systems that behave erratically in space and/or time, like the weather—to his study of fluid dynamics.

Olsen is a theoretical physicist, but the field of fluid dynamics has many practical industrial applications—from making pharmaceuticals to freeze-drying coffee.

Herschel Snodgrass

Herschel Snodgrass
Professor of Physics
Ph.D.: University of California at Berkeley
Joined College: 1986

You might typically think of astronomers as people who work at night, but Herschel Snodgrass’s work revolves around what can be observed only during the day: the sun.

It may be the closest star to the earth, but much about the sun’s inner workings remains a mystery.

Snodgrass studies sunspots—more specifically, a phenomenon known as torsional oscillation. The term refers to large bands of wind that appear to affect sunspot cycles. Using data collected with powerful solar tower telescopes at Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California, Snodgrass has been able to model complex patterns in the “solar nonlinear dynamo.”

Sunspot activity can affect things on the earth, from satellite communications to the weather. But fluctuations in the sun’s magnetic activity are chaotic and unpredictable. Snodgrass’s research may help scientists gain a better understanding of the sun’s evolution and perhaps even predict sunspot cycles.

“Understanding the sunspot cycle is a 400-year-old problem that still hasn’t been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction,” Snodgrass says. “I’d love to be able to say one day that we finally understand the sun.”

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