Astronomy Professor Reaches for the Stars

By Middlebury Campus

At 1:31 a.m. on Aug. 5, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Mars Curiosity rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars after an eight-and-a-half month journey.

Later that same day, the College released a statement in the weekly news hub, MiddPoints, announcing that Gamaliel Painter Bicentennial Professor of Physics Frank Winkler and his colleagues from various universities have been granted the opportunity to use Hubble Space Telescope, another famous, though older, NASA instrument.

Winkler, a member of the faculty since 1969, has an interest in the life cycle of stars and especially in stellar explosions.

It is therefore no surprise that the two projects for which Winkler and his associates are receiving Hubble observation time and associated funding – supplied through the NASA-supported Space Telescope Science Institute – are related to the life cycle of stars.

The first project, Stellar Life and Death in M83: A Hubble-Chandra Perspective, focuses on photographing the galaxy M83 at various light wavelengths.

For Winkler and his colleagues from Johns Hopkins aswell as other parts of the US and Australia, M83 is an unprecedented opportunity to learn about stars and their life cycle.

“M83 is one of the most active galaxies in terms of star birth and destruction that is relatively easy for scientists to study using Hubble and other technologies,” said Winkler.

“In order to learn about stellar life and activity, one needs to go to the source and examine stellar explosions as they occur. Just like newer doctors might spend time in the emergency room to learn a broad range of skills and knowledge relating to human life, we are looking at the abundant activity in M83 to learn more about a star’s life. M83 is, in essence, the emergency room of the sky.”

For the second project, The Remarkable Young Supernova Remnant in NGC 4449, Winkler is working with an entirely different team – comprised of colleagues from the Space Telescope Science Institute, Dartmouth University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics – to study the elements emitted by the remnant of a very bright supernova, or an exploding star.

The supernova remnant is of great importance because exploding stars emit elements, such as carbon and oxygen, from which all future stars and life are born.

The Hubble Space Telescope will be able to identify which elements the supernova gives off by studying the ultraviolet (UV) light emitted by the remnant of the supernova.

In fact, continued observations by Hubble for this project are scheduled for later in September.

“Supernovae play a key role in the production of the heavy elements of the universe. They provide the building blocks of life, and even we [humans] are made up of recycled star materials,” said Winkler.

The observation time granted to Winkler and his colleagues is especially noteworthy due to the fact that Hubble has an eight-to-one over-subscription rate each year; in other words, for every eight projects proposed, there is only time for Hubble to carry out one of those explorations.

This situation necessitates that each applicant provide a detailed plan and schedule of the proposed project, which Winkler and his colleagues from both projects submitted early in 2012.

Also, in order to be seriously considered for observation time using Hubble, candidates must have a real need of a satellite telescope.

Winkler and his colleagues thus worked as long as they could using ground-based telescopes and instruments.

No students will be assisting Winkler with these two projects due to the international nature of the teams involved and the large amount of clearance and approval needed to gain funding and access to the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, Winkler is still able to foster enthusiasm for the subject in his classes, namely the course “Introduction to the Universe.”

“Professor Winkler is an amazing teacher for science and non-science majors alike,” said Madi Clark ’14. “He opened my eyes to the true beauty and knowledge lying outside of the Earth. He helped to spark a curiosity and an appreciation for the universe that I never had before.”