Manchester College scientists
bring new meaning to 'stardust'
Nothing can survive the extreme heat of a star, right? Think again, say Manchester College astrophysicist Christer Watson and his students.
For the past four years, Watson and a few very bright and fortunate students have examined regions near a star that appear to contain grains of dust. It seems extraordinary that anything, much less dust, could survive the 100 thousand-degree temperatures of a star.
Watson is collaborating with astrophysicist John Everett of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a $30,000 grant for use of 5.6 hours on the Hershel Space Observatory to gather data about the infrared wavebands of two specific wind-blown bubbles or clouds of gas that occurred in the formation of two new stars, called N-90 and N-56. They need the super telescope because the stars are 100 trillion miles from Earth.
“Observational astronomy is all computer programming,” says Watson, associate professor of physics. “It’s all similar to using a digital camera, taking a picture and loading it onto your computer.” Well, it’s not quite that simple. The scientists first must write a computer program for analyzing the data.
Watson hopes the data retrieval from the observation time – downloaded onto computers in the Manchester College Science Center – will be scheduled for this spring. He has not selected the lucky MC physics students to share the research.
The Hershel Space Observatory, which is sensitive to longer “far” infrared light, was launched in May 2009 by the European Space Agency to study the origins of galaxies and stars and their atmospheres. It has the largest single mirror in a space telescope, collecting long-wavelength radiation from some of the oldest and most distant objects in the Universe.
When Watson was a graduate student at Wisconsin, he was a member of a project that discovered “bubbles” around hot regions of a star using GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire). His fascination about these bubbles has intensified as he puzzles why the ultraviolet radiation has not destroyed the molecules of the dust grains that are drawn to the stars.
Watson and his students are “old hands” at using data from a space telescope. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, Utsav Hanspal (a 2009 graduate now in at Ross University School of Medicine), senior T.J. Stafford and junior John Bruce studied galactic bubbles. Senior Patrick Forester studied “hot stars” that emit 6 times the heat of our sun. All three have delivered campus seminars on their research.