Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Detective Work

When I'm at Las Campanas Observatory, I like to walk around the mountain for exercise. During the winter it's hard to make time for these walks and still sleep and eat, but I find it's important for my mental well-being. Usually I listen to podcasts while I walk. In the last few days, I've been listening to Gimlet Media's Mystery Show, where Starlee Kine does exactly what it sounds like -- solves mysteries. Today I listened to an episode in which she was reuniting a hand-made, personalized belt buckle to its owner, from whom it had been stolen decades before. The show is a little cheezy at times, but mostly creative and entertaining. It reminds me of when I read the book and saw the movie "Harriet the Spy", and walked around for a few days with a notebook and my "tool belt" of knickknacks, spying on people around my neighborhood. 

Why am I writing about detective work on a blog about observing? Because tonight I am taking a night off from finding planets to play a different kind of detective...Disk Detective, that is. Disk Detective is a Zooniverse project, one of several scientific projects that use citizen scientists to collect and/or analyze HUGE sets of data. You can check out a wide variety and have fun making real contributions to science. Multiple projects in the Zooniverse world have produced papers in professional science journals. Disk Detective pits citizen scientists against images collected from the NASA WISE mission, which surveyed the whole sky in four different infrared wavelengths, to look for signatures of disks of gas and dust hanging out around stars. These disks can be both the birth place and the homes of planets -- the disks can be young, still forming planets, or older, harboring planets or rocky debris like our asteroid belt. A computer is not good at distinguishing these planet-y environments from other celestial objects that emit infrared light, plus computers only look for what they're told to look for. Hence the need for HUMAN eyes to help vet the disk candidates! Watch the video below for a preview.

Once vetted, the Disk Detective team conducts follow-up observations using telescopes around the world to hone in on the best candidates for directly imaging planets (see friends at MagAO), better understand why the disks are shaped/oriented in certain ways, better understand where disks are located in the Galaxy and how they vary in their properties, and ultimately, "help astronomers understand the prospects for life around these stars and distant future of our own solar system." Pretty cool, huh? Tonight and tomorrow night I'm conducting some of these follow-up observations on the 2.5-meter Irénée du Pont Telescope. Until tonight I thought this telescope was named after a woman...but I was wrong. At least I think so. Check out this guy -- Irénée du Pont. Rich, lived right before the telescope was built (1970s), name matches. Could there be another namesake of this eye to the celestial sky? Guess I've got myself a new mystery to solve...

DuPont Telescope, during the day

UPDATE: Steve Shectman informed me that the money for the 100-inch was donated by Crawford Greenewalt and his wife, Margaretta Lammot du Pont, an heir to the du Pont family fortune.  Irenee du Pont was her father.  Crawford was in charge of supplying the graphite (from du Pont) for Fermi's atomic pile in 1942. Later he became President and then Chairman of du Pont, and was also Chairman of the Carnegie Board. Thanks for helping with this mystery, Steve!

No comments:

Post a Comment