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From the Field: Sunsets, Sunrises, and Studying Stars

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At telescopes, it’s tradition to watch the sun set before beginning the night’s work. Pictured here, left to right: Mande Holford, a Museum research scientist and professor of Chemistry at York college; Jeff Andrews a Columbia graduate student; Jackie Faherty; and Mukremin Kilic, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. Photo courtesy of Jackie Faherty

Blogging from the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Sonoran desert in Arizona, Jackie Faherty, a research scientist in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, is on an observing trip this month to study brown dwarfs and low-mass stars that are potential hosts to exoplanets. A major new exhibition about the future of space exploration opens at the Museum this fall.

One of the rituals that I follow without fail at a telescope is watching the sunset and sunrise.  It is an essential part of any observing run and a wonderful marker of how our work night begins and ends. Night five at Kitt Peak provided a spectacular sunset, with perfect pink and red puffy clouds on the horizon. This is actually terrible for observing as the pesky clouds interfere with collecting data from way out in the cosmos. Luckily, a few hours into the evening the majority of weather blew off, and I was able to take high-quality data.

I am now working on taking spectra of stars, the majority of which are candidate hosts to their own planetary systems, named exoplanets. Recently the Kepler team reported 1,235 possible planets orbiting nearby stars. This announcement has cracked open exoplanet studies, but a great deal of follow-up is required to fully understand how these newly found planets  formed and what the conditions on their surfaces are like.

Tonight, I am joining the brigade of astronomers hunting down information on the new systems. Using facilities at Kitt Peak, I am making some very simple measurements of the host stars. By breaking up the light using a spectrograph, I can get an idea of the stellar temperature and basic chemical composition. The key to understanding properties of the planet will largely come from studies of the parent star. By 6 am, when I am sitting on a rock with two of my colleagues watching the sunrise, I am much more appreciative of the wealth of knowledge that studies of our own Sun have revealed regarding Earth’s formation.


Night five of observing at Kitt Peak featured a fantastic sunset, as seen from my position at the 2.4m telescope overlooking the 1.3m telescope. Photo courtesy of Jackie Faherty.

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