Everyone has heard of The Little Engine That Could where a little blue train engine knew she could eventually get over the mountain if she believed in herself enough. But what about the capability of a small camera to capture images of faraway places and new, unknown plants? Step in Dr. Elliott Horch, an astrophysicist and professor at Southern Connecticut State University. Dr. Elliott talked with Hanna and Cari about the amazing capabilities his little camera has in capturing images in space.
Now let’s travel to infinity and beyond. Dr. Horch, would you please introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your education and professional background?
I am an astrophysicist. I’ve lived and worked in Connecticut for about 15 years, but I am originally from Columbus, Ohio. Over the course of my career, I have lived in several different places. I got my PhD from Stanford University out in California, and after that I took a research position at Yale. Since that point I’ve been in the orbit of New Haven, Connecticut.
Why did you decide to go into astrophysics?
I would say that my mom had a lot to do with that. My mom was an elementary school teacher, but she had a lot of interests, and one of them was astronomy. She would sometimes, when there was a planetary alignment or something, get my brothers and I out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to check out something interesting in the sky. That bug sort of infected me over time. I’m mainly in this field because of her.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have two major projects right now that I’m pursuing with the help of my graduate students. The first one is a survey of nearby stars, which you might think, “Well, gee, haven’t we looked at the stars which are closest to the solar system enough?” The answer is that they have not been looked at with the very best quality imaging that we can do. The kind of work that I do involves taking very, very clear pictures of stars so we can really put these nearby stars under the microscope with the kinds of imaging techniques that I use. The project is meant to do a complete survey of stars that are within about 150 light years of the solar system, and to investigate how many of those are actually not just single stars, but have companion star that orbits around them. We study what fraction of stars are binaries.
The other project is to build a new kind of technology instrument on our campus. And again, the theme is to get very, very clear image information. So this instrument is sort of a two telescope arrangement where we use something called interferometry to get very, very high resolution imaging information. That’s been a fun project. The graduate students really like working on that, because they get to build things and try things out with prototype designs and things like that.
Can you tell us the difference between a regular telescope and a space telescope?
Most telescopes that we would use are here on the surface of the earth. You might have one that you take out into your backyard to see things in the sky as an amateur astronomer or amateur aficionados of astronomy. Even for professional astronomers, like myself, the telescopes we generally use are here on the surface of the earth. Even if they’re very large, they are subject to the fact that between you and the star is the atmosphere, and the atmosphere tends to blur images significantly in astronomy. That brings us to why you would want to take a telescope and put it in space. The classic example is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in operation for over 25 years now orbiting the earth. When you get above the Earth’s atmosphere, you get away from all of the blurry effects of the atmosphere. That’s why the Hubble space telescope can take such fantastic pictures. It doesn’t suffer from looking through the disturbing turbulence that’s in the atmosphere that affects the image quality. Space telescopes are orbiting the earth, or occasionally they’re orbiting the sun. The main difference between a regular telescope and a space telescope is the location.
What is your favorite telescope?
Anytime an astronomer is asked what sort of telescope they would like to use, the answer is: bigger is always better. The bigger the telescope, the more light that it can collect. That means you can generally look at fainter things. I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’ve used some of the largest telescopes in the world. If you had to ask me, “What’s my favorite telescope?”, I would say the Gemini North telescope is one that I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to use. Gemini North is on the summit of Mauna Kea on the big Island of Hawaii. The summit of Mauna Kea is 14,000 feet above sea level.
On the summit of Mauna Kea, you’ll see several of the world’s largest telescopes. And the Gemini North telescope is the largest telescope available in the US for astronomers. The telescope has a primary mirror which is more than eight meters across; that’s about 26 feet across the main mirror. That’s a lot of collection area where you can really collect a lot of light and look at extremely faint things. That’s been my favorite telescope to use.
Is the Mauna Kea telescope open to the public?
No. Anybody can go to the summit of the Mauna Kea, but generally speaking, the Gemini telescope does not have tours. However, there are other facilities on the mountain that you can see. A little bit closer to home in Arizona, there’s a really good observatory called Kitt Peak National Observatory. It’s located near Tucson, Arizona. If you go to Tucson, and you have a free day, you might drive up to the top of Kitt Peak, and they have a very complete tour that you can take of all of the big telescopes on that mountain.
Can you tell us what the Kepler mission is?
The Kepler satellite is a satellite that was launched by NASA. It was almost 10 years ago now. Its mission was to stare at a particular spot in the sky, continuously, take measurements of all of the stars that it could see in that region, and to look for tiny little dips in the amount of light coming from the star. Those dips were to be interpreted as the passing of a planet in front of the star that you were looking at. It was really a mission to search for planets that were going around other stars besides the sun, or what we call extrasolar planets, or exoplanets for short. It was an incredibly successful mission. In looking at that patch of sky over a period of four or five years, the satellite was able to detect thousands of these transiting events, where the planet comes in front of the host star. And because of that, we now know about thousands of exoplanets that we did not know of before. It’s really revolutionized the game in astronomy. It’s really turned on this field of exoplanets, and so much so, that there’s even a current mission called TESS, another satellite, which is sort of the successor mission to Kepler. That’s doing an even more complete job of surveying the sky for extrasolar planets.
The quest for earth-like planets is a major focus of current exoplanet research. What kind of work have you personally done on exoplanet research?
Well, that involves both Kepler and the Gemini telescope, which I spoke about just a couple of minutes ago. Here’s the reason, the Kepler satellite, for all of its sensitivity and being able to see these tiny dips in the light that are represented when the shadow of the planet comes across the disk of its host star, it’s not a very good imaging system. Once you see that dip in the light, you know there’s probably a planet there, but you need to rule out some other possibilities. It could be another star that passes in front, and it can mimic that same sort of effect in certain cases.
After we saw a transit event with the Kepler satellite, what I would do, along with collaborators at NASA and elsewhere, is I would go and observe these stars, one by one, from Gemini. We would try to get a very high resolution picture of the star to rule out whether there was a second star in the vicinity that could have mimicked the exoplanet effect. In the course of doing that, we looked at literally hundreds of these, we were able to find that there were stellar companions to these stars in some cases. In the majority of cases, there was no other star in the vicinity, and therefore you could conclude, “Well then, this transit event must been the result of an exoplanet and not any other source.” We were helping to vet, in essence, candidate exoplanets and make sure that was the only explanation for what the satellite had seen.
What is the superpower device that you developed for telescopes that enables astronomists to snap photos of celestial objects many times clearer than has ever been taken before?
It was kind of a lucky coincidence that the Kepler mission was becoming important. It had just been launched, and was just starting to take data, at about the same time that at Southern Connecticut State University, I was in the process of building a high resolution imaging camera that would be used with telescopes on the ground. It was almost like of a marriage made in heaven in a way to say, “Okay, the Kepler Satellite can identify some possibilities for where exoplanets are, and then if people use my camera with a large telescope, they could get a very clear picture of what was going on around that star.” If there was a stellar companion, you could see that, and if not, then you could say, “Okay, the explanation for the transit was an exoplanet.”
The basis of my camera is it’s a device that allows you to beat the turbulence in the atmosphere, which is the thing that is blurring out your images. What my camera does is it takes very, very rapid pictures in two different colors at the same time. You can take individual exposures that show you what the turbulence is doing, moment by moment. Then mathematically, what we do is we analyze those images, and there’s a process by which we can reconstruct what the image must have looked like before the atmosphere blurred out the image. We can get back to almost something like taking an image from space. Since the Gemini telescope is a very large telescope, imagine if you could put that telescope in space, you’d get a supercharged Hubble telescope image. That’s what we try to do from the ground. You know, you’re not getting something for nothing. Typically, my camera cannot look at things which are super faint, but for reasonably bright things, you can get extremely high quality images. It’s much better imaging than if you just take a standard exposure in astronomy.
Let’s settle this debate once and for all. In your expertise, is Pluto a planet or not?
What I would say is that I’m happy if people call it a planet, and I’m happy if people call it a dwarf planet. I think what would be nice for folks to recognize about the situation of why it got this new status is: over time people realized that Pluto wasn’t out there just by itself, that there were other bodies a little bit farther away from the solar system than Pluto. A couple of those are actually quite large, they’re as large or larger, than Pluto. They have been discovered in the last 10 or 15 years. The recognition that Pluto isn’t the only thing out there, that it’s part of a larger group of bodies which we call the Kuiper belt, is the motivation for why Pluto has this new status. It is simply one of the largest and inner most examples of what we call Kuiper belt objects. As long as folks have that understanding, then I’m happy if they call Pluto either a planet or a dwarf planet.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming an astrophysicist, and what does the job market look like for someone who is just going into the job market for astrophysics?
I’ll give you the bad news first, and then we’ll go to the good news after that. When I was a student at Stanford, I went to an astronomy conference, and I remember attending a session there. This is back in the early nineties, and essentially they were giving statistics about young astronomers and what the job prospects were then. They said, essentially, that 80% of people who go into astronomy and get the credentials needed in order to be an astronomer, which is essentially a PhD in astronomy or physics, that 80% of those people wind up doing something other than astronomy. That may be by choice in some cases, but often it’s because it’s traditionally hard to find jobs in astronomy.
Moving to the good side of the ledger, astronomers are very adaptable people as well. There are many jobs that people can get if they have an astronomy background. For example, even in Connecticut here, we have a thriving optics industry. There are innovative companies that make really high quality optics for lots of different purposes, even Sikorsky aircraft, one of our most heralded companies in the state. They have a group that’s interested in making advanced imaging systems that they would put on their helicopters. There are many interesting things that you can do with an astronomy and optics background. So my advice to anybody who would want to go into the field is: follow your heart. If astronomy is what you love, then put your all into that and do it. Just realize that astronomy is a demanding field. It’s a situation where you should try to remain a little bit flexible about the opportunities that come up as well.
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