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Astronomy student, professor visit major observatory in Chile

4/26/2010

The enormous white domes of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory sit high in the Andes Mountains, hundreds of miles from any light pollution produced by a city or town.

It took Dr. Allyn Smith, Austin Peay State University astronomy professor, and his student, Melissa Butner, several hours in a car along narrow, winding roads, to reach the complex last December. They left Clarksville shortly before Christmas to spend a week in Chile, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research that could “revolutionize astronomy.â€
The enormous white domes of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory sit high in the Andes Mountains, hundreds of miles from any light pollution produced by a city or town.

It took Dr. Allyn Smith, Austin Peay State University astronomy professor, and his student, Melissa Butner, several hours in a car along narrow, winding roads, to reach the complex last December. They left Clarksville shortly before Christmas to spend a week in Chile, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research that could “revolutionize astronomy.”

Butner, a quiet-natured student who's already visited major observatories in Hawaii and Arizona, said it was a great opportunity to work at the Cerro Tololo complex, which houses the best astronomical telescopes in the Americas.

“It was an amazing experience,” Butner said. “It was my first trip out of the country.”

She and Smith traveled to the observatory to begin the calibration effort for the upcoming Dark Energy Survey using the large telescope. This is part of their involvement in this survey of the southern hemisphere. Smith is specifically looking to identify the hotter stars in this region, by using an ultraviolet filter to separate these stars from cooler stars. Their work will be similar to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which began observing the northern hemisphere sky in 2000.

“Sloan rewrote the entire astronomy book,” Smith said. “Everything we knew about astronomy — galactic structure, galactic evolution, the Milky Way — was wrong. The basics are correct, but we have details we'd never seen before. The Milky Way is larger than we thought it was. We have a counter-rotating disk in the outer part of the galaxy, which was probably the left over remnants of a dwarf galaxy we cannibalized. We found four or five new dwarf galaxies around the Milky Way; we found five or six dwarf galaxies around the Andromeda galaxy. We found the largest structure in the universe known to date.”

The new Dark Energy Survey, which Smith and Butner will both be working on, will offer a more expansive look at the sky than was done by the Sloan survey. That means the data retrieved could again revolutionize the field of astronomy, changing what scientists thought they knew about the universe.

“It was a great opportunity and learning experience, and I hope to continue this work in graduate school,” Butner said. “The next time I get a chance to observe at CTIO, I would like to create the observing plan.”

She and Smith hope to return to Chile later this year to continue their work.

For more information on the Dark Energy Survey, or astronomy research opportunities at APSU, contact Smith at 221-6104 or smithj@apsu.edu. -- Charles Booth