Skyword: November 2015

November 2015

Director’s Message

Director's Message

Taft Armandroff

Taft Armandroff, Director

Frank and Susan Bash Endowed Chair

In this SkyWord newsletter, we are sharing with you, the friends and supporters of McDonald Observatory, some of the Observatory’s most recent research results, outreach news, and a view of some of our team.

Our featured research result concerns an Earth-sized exoplanet revealed by the Kepler Space Telescope and aided by the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory. The study of exoplanets is perhaps the fastest growing and most exciting area of astronomy today. October 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet. Before that, astronomers struggled without success to find unequivocal evidence of planets beyond our own solar system. Finding and studying exoplanets is a technical challenge because they are so much less massive and so much fainter than their parent stars, plus they are projected on the sky incredibly close to their parent stars. However, more than 1,800 exoplanets have now been confirmed, which is a tribute to advances in astronomical techniques and the passion of exoplanet hunters. McDonald Observatory is a major player in the field of exoplanets, with vital contributions coming from astronomers Bill Cochran and Mike Endl and their colleagues, using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, Harlan J. Smith Telescope, Kepler, and other facilities.

Through SkyWord and other means, we enjoy keeping you current with progress on the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which the University of Texas at Austin is developing in partnership with 10 other world-class educational and research institutions. GMT will be the largest telescope in the world when it comes online in 2021, and its revolutionary capabilities will enable observational data on astronomical targets that are completely inaccessible today. GMT has reached the critical milestone of its groundbreaking, which is taking place at the GMT site in Chile on November 11.

Also in this issue is a spotlight on Craig Nance, McDonald Observatory superintendent based in West Texas. Many of you may have met Craig on your visits to the Observatory. With Craig’s engineering rigor, deep experience in observatory operations, and love of the night sky, we are very fortunate to have his leadership in West Texas.

As a scientific field, astronomy benefits immensely from the interest of the public. This enables wonderful outreach opportunities to share broadly all that we are learning about the universe. In Texas, popular public outreach institutions include our own Frank N. Bash Visitors Center and StarDate radio, plus the Texas Star Party, the planetariums across Texas, and the many Texas astronomy clubs. There is a new force in Texas astronomy outreach: Astronomy On Tap, which features speakers and astronomy news alongside craft beer and cocktails monthly in Austin. This wholly new environment for scientific outreach is attracting a diverse crowd of astronomy enthusiasts. The event — and the two postdocs who are the creative force behind it, Rachael Livermore and Jeffrey Silverman — are featured here as well.

Lastly, this summer we were honored to host University of Texas System Chancellor Bill McRaven at McDonald Observatory. The Chancellor toured the McDonald telescopes, saw the latest hardware for HETDEX, viewed the night sky, and interacted with astronomers, other Observatory staff, and friends of the Observatory. Chancellor McRaven has a passion for science in general and astronomy in particular. As a strong advocate for the University of Texas, science, and higher education, the Chancellor’s words were inspiring to everyone who met him at the Observatory.


Texas Astronomers Help Find Earth’s Older, Bigger Cousin

Artist concept of Kepler-452b (Art by: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

By Rebecca Johnson

University of Texas at Austin astronomers working with NASA’s Kepler mission have helped to discover the first near-Earth-sized planet around a Sun-like star in the “habitable zone,” the range of distances where liquid water could pool on a planet’s surface. They used the university’s McDonald Observatory to help confirm the finding, which has been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal

“We are pushing toward Earth 2.0,” McDonald Observatory astronomer Michael Endl said. “This planet is probably the most similar to Earth yet found.”

The planet, Kepler-452b, lies about 1,400 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. It’s 60 percent larger than Earth and is considered a “super-Earth-sized” planet. Its mass and composition are not yet known, but previous research suggests that a planet of its size has a better than even chance of being rocky. Its orbital period is similar to Earth’s, at 385 days.

Once the Kepler spacecraft identifies a possible planet, “you need to do a whole array of follow-up,” Endl said. “This is where the power of McDonald Observatory comes in.”

He explained Kepler data provides the ratio of a potential planet’s size to the star’s size, but not the actual size of either. So once Kepler finds a planet candidate, telescopes at McDonald Observatory and elsewhere get to work characterizing the host star in as much detail as possible.

“If you know the host star, you know the planet,” Endl summarized.

The UT Austin Kepler group probed the star with the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory in West Texas. Together with similar measurements from Whipple and Keck observatories, the data proved that the planet is real (that is, not a starspot or other false signal picked up by Kepler). Their measurements helped pin down the planet’s size to between 1.4 and 1.8 times the size of Earth — a size that makes theorizing about the planet’s makeup a bit tricky.

“At around 1.5 times the Earth’s radius there seems to be a transition going on from predominantly rocky planets to planets that contain more volatiles — ices,” Endl said, “which would make it a mini-ice giant.” In the case of Kepler-452b, “we don’t know if it’s a big rocky planet or if it’s a mini-Neptune.”

The McDonald Observatory and other ground-based measurements also proved that the host star, Kepler-452, is 1.5 billion years older than the Sun, and is 10 percent larger and 20 percent brighter. It has the same temperature as the Sun, and like the Sun, Kepler-452b is classified as a G2-type star.

“Kepler has recently shown that virtually all of the stars that we see in the sky probably host planetary systems,” said UT Austin research professor Bill Cochran, a co-investigator of the Kepler mission. “Now we are discovering that a significant number of those systems are very much like our own and may have the capability of being habitable.”

While planets smaller than Kepler-452b have previously been found in their host star’s habitable zone, this is the first small planet orbiting a star very similar to our Sun. This discovery, and the introduction of 12 new small habitable zone candidates Kepler has uncovered, many around Sun-like stars, marks another milestone in the journey to understand our place in the cosmos.

“We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth’s evolving environment," said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at NASA's Ames Research Center. "It is awe inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star, longer than Earth. That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet.”

Endl explained that a star’s habitable zone changes over its lifetime. As a star ages and becomes brighter, the more intense radiation pushes its habitable zone farther out. Astronomers estimate how long Kepler-452b has spent in its star’s habitable zone by combining the star’s brightness and age with their measurement of the planet’s orbit.

The Kepler team at McDonald Observatory has been involved with the mission since before its launch in 2009. The team follows up planet candidates with the Harlan J. Smith Telescope, and next year will resume Kepler follow-up observations with the refurbished 10-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world’s largest.

Giant Magellan Telescope Organization Breaks Ground in Chile

Artist's rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope (Image courtesy: GMTO)

Atacama Desert, CHILE — Leaders and supporters from The University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, along with representatives from an international group of partner universities and research institutions, are gathering on a remote mountaintop high in the Chilean Andes today to celebrate groundbreaking for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).

The ceremony marks the commencement of on-site construction of the telescope and its support base. The GMT is poised to become the world’s largest telescope when it begins early operations in 2021. It will produce images 10 times sharper than those delivered by Hubble Space Telescope and will address key questions in cosmology, astrophysics, and the study of planets outside our solar system.

“We are thrilled to be breaking ground on the Giant Magellan Telescope site at such an exciting time for astronomy,” says Dr. Taft Armandroff, GMT Board Chair and director of McDonald Observatory. “With its unprecedented size and resolving power, the Giant Magellan Telescope will allow current and future generations of astronomers to continue the journey of cosmic discovery.”

The GMT will be located at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Known for its clear, dark skies and outstanding astronomical image clarity, Las Campanas is one of the world’s premier locations for astronomy. Construction crews will soon be busy on the site building the roads, power, data, and other infrastructure needed to support the observatory.

The unique design of the telescope combines seven of the largest mirrors that can be manufactured, each 8.4 meters (27 feet) across, to create a single telescope effectively 25 meters or 85 feet in diameter. The giant mirrors are being developed at the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory. Each mirror must be polished to an accuracy of 25 nanometers or one millionth of an inch.

One giant mirror has been polished to meet its exacting specifications. Three others are being processed, and production of the additional mirrors will be started at the rate of one per year. The telescope will begin early operations with these first mirrors in 2021, and the telescope is expected to reach full operational capacity within the next decade.

“An enormous amount of work has gone into the design phase of the project and development of the giant mirrors that are the heart of the telescope. The highest technical risks have been retired, and we are looking forward to bringing the components of the telescope together on the mountain top,” says Patrick McCarthy, interim president of the GMT Organization.

The GMT will enable astronomers to characterize planets orbiting other stars, witness early formation of galaxies and stars, and gain insight into dark matter and dark energy. GMT’s findings will also likely give rise to new questions and lead to new and unforeseen discoveries.

The GMT Organization board of directors officially approved the project’s entry into the construction phase in early 2015 after the 11 international founders committed over $500 million towards the project. Founders come from the U.S., Australia, Brazil, and Korea, with Chile as the host country.

“With today’s groundbreaking, we take a crucial step forward in our mission to build the first in a new generation of extremely large telescopes. The GMT will usher in a new era of discovery and help us to answer some of our most profound questions about the universe,” says Dr. Charles Alcock, GMT Organization board member and director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “We are pleased to celebrate this momentous milestone with our Chilean colleagues, our international partners, and the astronomical community.”  

Education & Outreach

UT Austin Postdocs Serve Up Astronomy and a Pint

The North Door, home to Austin’s monthly Astronomy On Tap meet ups

By Suzanne Geiger

Walk into the North Door, a pub that sits in downtown Austin just east of Interstate 35, and the slogan “Science is Even Better With Beer” comes to life the third Tuesday of every month. That’s when interested Austinites gather over astronomy and a pint to participate in the growing phenomenon known as Astronomy On Tap.

Following in the vein of other special-interest meetups, Astronomy On Tap draws on the public’s growing taste for combining education and entertainment into a single event. The November meetup marks the first anniversary of the Austin chapter (AoTATX), which was started by Drs. Rachael Livermore and Jeffrey Silverman, postdoctoral fellows at McDonald Observatory.

Seated in a small sixteenth-floor office in the UT Astronomy building, Jeffrey said that he first heard about Astronomy On Tap while at an American Astronomical Society Meeting, a go-to convocation for professional astronomers. There, in a convention hall full of academic science posters, one in particular caught his eye.

Drs. Jeffrey Silverman and Rachael Livermore (left to right), atop Robert Lee Moore Hall on the UT Austin campus (Photos by: Suzanne Geiger)Drs. Jeffrey Silverman and Rachael Livermore (left to right), atop Robert Lee Moore Hall on the UT Austin campus (Photos by: Suzanne Geiger) “It had a beer glass on it,” Jeffrey said, and it publicized the New York-based Astronomy On Tap. After talking about AoT with astronomer Emily Rice, one of the group’s founders and the owner of said poster, Jeffrey returned home with the impulse to start an Austin chapter. He felt that it fit with the city’s aesthetic, but he spent months batting around the idea, telling several colleagues about it in an attempt to garner interest.

Finally, about six months later, he said, “It was Rachael who said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

While the first Austin gathering was held at a smaller venue and drew 140 people (a number that far surpassed Jeffrey’s and Rachael’s initial expectations), attendance at recent events has drawn as many as 285, resulting in standing-room-only crowds. Though topics and speakers vary from month to month, astronomy — as the name implies — is always on tap. Answering the question of whether they’ll ever run out of subject matter, Rachael quipped, “As it turns out, we’ve got the entire universe to talk about.”

While AoTATX guest speakers have covered topics like dark energy, solar system formation, and life behind the scenes at McDonald Observatory (a talk presented by Dr. Taft Armandroff), so too have the topics ventured off a bit, including subjects such as “How Space Rocks Killed the Dinosaurs” and “Hydrogen Burning,” which Dr. Kate Biberdorf of the UT Chemistry Department gave, intersecting her work as a chemist with that of astronomy.

While Kate spends a good portion of her time as an outreach coordinator in which she (literally) blows stuff up at events for K-12 and public audiences, she said that she has never quite encountered anything like Astronomy On Tap.

“After my talk, the crowd would be standing there asking me questions and drinking,” she said. “Everyone presenting was clearly passionate about their subject. . . . For me it was beautiful both as presenter and as a student.”

And contrary to what one might think, Astronomy On Tap isn’t just for astronomers or those studying astronomy. The event brings out a diverse crowd that transcends any particular age range or profession.

Pete Szilagyi, a former journalist who is affiliated with McDonald Observatory through the Board of Visitors, said he came across AoTATX from friends who had mentioned it. “It was just out there in the community,” he said.

As a frequent attender, Szilagyi said, “A lot of astronomy is so unapproachable and unfathomable to the average person, so it’s nice to see it brought out in a light-hearted and entertaining manner, but still having substance.”

Because Jeffrey and Rachael pay for all of Astronomy On Tap out of their own pockets, fronting the costs of merchandise, sound equipment, and the like, Szilagyi said, “I have often thought — especially when they make an appeal for donations — that there’s just something so honest about it, and so earthy.” It’s that, plus its quirk — because “it’s off the beaten path,” he said — that draws Szilagyi and hundreds of others to the event.

“We wanted to bring this to people who wouldn’t normally go to a public lecture,” Rachael said.

As Austin’s gathering continues to spread by word-of-mouth and other means, the event as a whole is also growing. While it started out in New York, it’s also in U.S. cities like New Haven, Seattle, and Tucson, and Santiago, Chile has a gathering, too.

Speaking about the event’s ability to draw all types (including scientists and non-scientists alike), Jeffrey said, “A lot of [the people who come] are in law and politics. People have brought their teenage kids, too.”

And what started out as an idea that might or might not work in Austin has become something of a smash hit. “Yeah,” Jeffrey said, “We’ve got a bit of a following.”

To learn more about AoTATX or to attend their November event — which will feature talks about relativity, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s publication — visit them online or at their Facebook page


McDonald Observatory Superintendent Returns to West Texas After Productive Hiatus

Interview by Suzanne Geiger

Craig Nance took up the role of McDonald Observatory superintendent last January, and in doing so returned to the place where he, from 1997–2000, served as the facility manager for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. In between his two stints in West Texas, Craig was director of the Mt. Graham International Observatory and operations engineering manager at W. M. Keck Observatory. He spoke from his office at the Observatory about how the first nine months have been.

What drew you back to McDonald Observatory?

I worked for Taft Armandroff for many years at Keck Observatory. He joined Keck in 2006, and shortly after that we had a major, damaging earthquake with the telescopes — over a million dollars in damage. I didn’t know much about him because he was our new director. But he led us through that, and as a result of the crisis, he was someone I just really respected and admired and enjoyed working for. When I went to Mt. Graham Observatory in Arizona it was to be closer to family.

McDonald is a place I am very familiar with, so it’s not just one thing. Being reunited with people that I worked with in the past was a major factor in that decision — including being reunited with Taft. The public outreach mission of McDonald is something I also enjoy very much. They have the Texas Star Party here, which is wonderful. That was one of the other major draws to come back here. It’s one of the biggest amateur astronomy gatherings in the world.

What were your experiences at Keck and Mt. Graham observatories like?

At Keck I was working on some of the most advanced technology systems in all of astronomy. In September, they invited me to come back out to celebrate the retirement of the Keck 2 Laser Guidestar Adaptive Optics System I worked on. They’re upgrading to a second-generation system that I’ve been serving as an external reviewer on. They’ve done some of the most unique science in all of astronomy and are trying to push the telescopes to do as much as they can. The philosophical idea I believe in is “Let’s push the telescopes to their limit.” Ultimately, I led the engineering team for all of operations as the operations engineering manager. Being at Mt. Graham was primarily a site leadership position, which was a wonderful expansion of my career, whereas Keck was very much direct work on the cutting edge of high technology. The Mt. Graham site is owned by the federal government, so there was a lot of working to make sure we were in compliance with federal regulations. Most Thursday mornings, as example, I had breakfast with the mayor of the town. It was a very different role. It was a pure leadership type role, political. I use the word politics in a positive way – in terms of interacting with the community.

You seem to have a strong, but quiet leadership style.

By nature I’m not one of these loud and outgoing types of people. It’s just the way I’ve always been. And also, the places you’ve lived make a difference. Hawaii was very much that way culturally. Prior to astronomy, I was an officer in the Air Force. In the Air Force, they wanted that calm, quiet, confident demeanor. I’ve always liked to have a leadership team with calm, quiet, confident people. In those stressful moments, it doesn’t do any good to get overly stressed or overly excited. 

What is the impact of your engineering background on your work at McDonald?

I think the main impact is that I’m very focused on what the capabilities of the telescopes are, and how we can best have the telescopes and instruments that perform optimally for our astronomers. An analogy is a Formula One race team. The driver is the star of the show, and those cars are engineered to perform at the highest level for the driver. Every aspect of the telescopes also must operate at a high level as well. The question is always, “What is the science we’re doing tonight?” and “What can we do to make the telescopes better for science?” The analogous goal is to make [it] go faster. To win races.

What are your near-term goals as superintendent?

I take my lead from Taft, and that’s what I’ve always done. He has established three very clear, high-level goals. First, there’s the overall sustainability of McDonald and its need to flourish for all of its stakeholders – and that includes anyone who considers the Observatory important to them — astronomers, visitors, staff, anyone. There’s a lot involved in that. Second, we need for the HET to get back on sky and do science. Many people are working on it full time and beyond. That’s big goal number two. Big goal number three is McDonald Observatory’s role in the GMT. We’re doing a lot of work to make sure that McDonald has a robust role in that telescope, as it is vital to our long-term future. Everything we do on a daily basis falls out of that and are what I consider tactics to these three goals. Those are things such as telescope maintenance, to issues related to housing. We’re also looking at the experience of people who stay at the Astronomers Lodge. Those are just to name a few.  The things we do on a daily basis must link strongly to one of the three goals.   

What have the first nine months been like?

They have been phenomenal. I like for things to be borderline — or beyond the line — of too busy. If I ever get bored it’s not a good thing. And I’ve never been bored here. It’s been very rewarding. It’s been very enjoyable.

Superintendent Craig Nance's telescope trailer, as designed by his wife Laura Nance (Photo by: Sandra Preston)Superintendent Craig Nance's telescope trailer, as designed by his wife Laura Nance (Photo by: Sandra Preston) Tell me about the Einstein trailer.

One of my hobbies, when I have spare time, is to build telescopes. I’m kind of a one-trick pony in regards to telescopes and astronomy. I have built 20-inch reflector telescopes — Dobsonians — which I’ve taken out to the community to schools and star parties. Like any hobby, you start on it and you add more things and more complexity to it. It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy making larger mirrors because it’s either that, or I go buy a boat. And I’d rather have a telescope. I have a five-by-eight-foot trailer to haul them in. My wife has an artistic streak, and she’d found this template of Einstein. I came home one day and she had put Einstein on the side of the trailer, and I thought it was the neatest thing. When I drive it around, people can’t believe it when they see it. The image is from a famous photo. In a moment, Albert Einstein just stuck his tongue out at reporters. It captures him in a wonderful way. And that’s my astronomy trailer.

Featured Image

Featured Image

Having served as a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy SEALs who shaped and influenced national policy at the highest level, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven (right) knows first-hand the need for excellence in scientific research and advanced technology. This past summer, Chancellor McRaven visited McDonald Observatory as a special guest at the Board of Visitors meeting and toured the West Texas facility with College of Natural Sciences Dean Linda Hicke (left) and Taft Armandroff (center). Following that visit, in which he championed the Observatory and other UT colleges that are taking up ground-breaking research, such as the type that the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment and Giant Magellan Telescope will produce, Chancellor McRaven also saw the vital support the Observatory draws from so many friends and supporters. In a blog post he wrote, “One of the things that has really struck me — and frankly, surprised me — since I became Chancellor is the number of people all over this state who give so generously to UT System institutions. I don’t just mean money. . . . I’m talking about people all over Texas who — recognizing what we mean to the state — give of their time, energy, and expertise.” (Photo by: Wayne Alexander)

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