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UCR, Claremont Colleges Scientists Collaborate on Retooled Telescope

UCR, Claremont Colleges Scientists Collaborate on Retooled Telescope

(September 2, 1998)

Atop Table Mountain in the San Gabriel Mountains, the view extends from the expansive Mojave Desert in the north to the steep slopes of Mountain High ski resort in the south. But astronomers who study at the observatory there prize the location for its unearthly views -- those of the stars, planets and other celestial bodies in the night sky.

Next fall, University of California, Riverside astrophysics researchers and students expect to celebrate "first light" of the Claremont-Riverside Infrared Camera, an instrument that will be mounted below Pomona College's 40-inch telescope at Table Mountain Observatory to study the tumultuous birth of stars, currently one of the hottest fields of astronomy. The telescope, recently refurbished with new light-gathering mirrors, will thus become a state-of-the-art facility for research on stars.

The project is made possible by recent grants from the National Science Foundation and a collaboration between Mary Barsony, UCR assistant professor of physics, and colleagues from the Claremont Colleges.

"This will help put UCR on the astronomy map," she said. "It will draw students, postdoctoral researchers and visiting scientists interested in astronomy research projects. And, it is particularly exciting for our undergraduates, who will have access to a first-class research facility practically on their doorstep."

Coordinating the project is Barsony, who is currently serving as a visiting professor at Harvey Mudd College, a professorship funded by the National Science Foundation Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education program. The team plans to retool Pomona College's telescope, one of several telescopes at the Table Mountain Observatory operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with an infrared camera that will be able to "see" into the dark, molecular clouds of space where stars are born.

Traditional optical telescopes cannot see into the murky clouds because radiation from the shorter wavelength portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as visible and ultraviolet light, is absorbed and re-emitted at longer wavelengths by the clouds' dust particles.

"In the optical spectrum, you can't see into regions where stars form. At the near-infrared, you can finally see partway into the clouds to a sufficient extent where you can pick out the young stars."

The Claremont-Riverside Infrared Camera (CLRIRCAM -- pronounced "clearer cam") will detect light in the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, light that is just beyond the visible range of humans. Telescope control software developed by JPL scientists will help astronomers create maps and images of the star-forming regions, and data reduction software being developed by Barsony and her colleagues will allow quantitative analysis of the images from space.

The project is no small undertaking, said Barsony, because each component of the camera must be specially designed for the telescope. "This is still not off-the-shelf technology," she said. Doug Williams, a postdoctoral scientist at Harvey Mudd and one of Barsony's collaborators, is engineering and building the camera. The hardware is funded by a National Science Foundation grant of $108,000, matched by $50,000 from UCR and $60,000 from the Claremont Colleges.

Infrared detectors are among the new tools that have helped open a relatively new discipline within astronomy -- the study of star formation. Understanding how stars form has implications for scientists' theories about the evolution of planetary systems, galaxies and the universe as a whole.

"In some sense, this is the golden age of astronomy. It's unprecedented the range (of the electromagnetic spectrum) that is opening up because of the technology becoming available to detect it," she said.

Unprecedented, too, will be the opportunities afforded undergraduates from UCR and the Claremont Colleges. Just an hour's drive from UCR near Wrightwood, the Table Mountain Observatory has ample dormitory facilities, which will be available free of charge for students to stay overnight or for extended observing periods. "People underestimate convenience. It's a huge advantage," she said.

And, because the telescope will be shared on a nearly equal basis between the UCR-Claremont Colleges group and JPL, scientists and students will be able to undertake long-term projects that are not possible at national astronomy facilities. At many observatories, competition for telescope time is intense and groups are typically allocated just a few nights per year at most, according to Barsony.

The substantial telescope time at Table Mountain should help astronomers answer some long-standing questions about the birth of stars.

Young, immature stars undergo at least three stages of development. The first stage, discovered by Barsony and co-workers in 1993, lasts several tens of thousands of years. At this stage, a "protostar" consists mostly of an in-falling envelope of cosmic gas and dust and is invisible even at near-infrared wavelengths. The in-fall is accompanied by outflow, with the nascent protostar blowing out powerful jets of gas along its poles.

Over the next few hundred thousand years, the protostar condenses the final bit of the mass it will have as a mature star, and blows away its remaining in-fall envelope.

During the next few million years, the young stellar object is often surrounded by just an accretion disk, an orbiting, flattened structure of gas and dust left over from the in-fall. Some of the material in this disk is still spiraling in toward the central young star, whereas the rest is the raw material from which planetary systems, like our own, can form. At this stage, the young star slowly contracts and heats up at its center. As it matures, the star begins fusing hydrogen to helium, generating the energy that gives stars their luminosity.

Barsony plans to focus on the second and third stages of star formation with CLRIRCAM. "There is not a lot of detail known about these stages, and there are lots of unanswered questions." For instance, astronomers have puzzled over why stars form in groups of hundreds. "What is going on in the clouds that stars form in these groups?" Barsony said.

Young stars also exhibit large fluctuations in the amount of their energy output in the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

No one has systematically observed the variability in the energy output of young stars to find out how large it is typically, or if the variations are periodic or irregular, Barsony said. Long-term observations of variability in young stars in the near-infrared could yield clues about many of the various physical processes in young stars, especially those occurring in their accretion disks.

Scientists will also be able to conduct studies of other celestial phenomena at the re-tooled telescope, according to Barsony. CLRIRCAM could aid in the determination of asteroid orbits, in the search of extra-solar planets and brown dwarfs, and in studies of stellar populations in our galaxy and nearby galaxies.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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