Astronomers in my department are anxiously and excitedly watching the events unfold from the space shuttle mission to repair Hubble this week. HST has been a fantastically productive scientific instrument, and many people are hoping it will continue to revolutionize how we think of the universe for a few more years. My personal favorite has to be the “M-sigma” relation, or the fact that everywhere we look, we seem to find a supermassive black hole in the center of every galaxy with a bulge. Not only that, but the black hole size and galaxy mass are correlated! This is somewhat surprising, since the mass of the black hole is such a tiny fraction of the entire galaxy’s mass, its gravitational influence is only important in the very central core. From this, we can improve our models of galaxy formation and evolution. This is important since, after all, galaxies make stars and stars have planets and planets have us!
Of course, those who know me know that I’m just as fascinated by astronomical instrumentation as by the science itself. I really do want to know HOW astronomers came to their conclusions by getting to the heart of the data taking process. So it was fitting that I made my first field trip to Green Bank in months to work on PAPER, the low frequency telescope that aims to detect hydrogen from the early universe, at the same time that the crew of STS-125 was first grappling with Hubble.
I have quite an appreciation for the engineers and scientists that build and maintain our large telescopes. Not only do the instruments have to be sensitive and stable for scientific observations, but they need to be structurally sound and come in at least close to budget. Maintaining a telescope is no easy task either. But imagine everything that we do to keep a telescope running, and do it IN SPACE. Squeezing my already tiny fingers into a small space to release some SMA connectors, I couldn’t help but think, “At least I’m not doing this in spacesuit gloves.” As I curse at myself for dropping a tiny screwdriver into the equipment rack, I think, “Well, it won’t float away!” Driving the diesel Jeep over the muddy field to the equipment hut is less exciting than taking a rocket into orbit, but it is more convenient and safer. Needless to say, I admire and respect the crew of STS-125 and all astronauts that risk life and limb and go through countless hours of training to prepare themselves for space and for science.
I will say, however, that they probably didn’t find a territorial wasp protecting a nest when they opened up Hubble this week. But I wouldn’t be doing radio astronomy properly if I wasn’t dealing with some sort of wild pest, right?
(Oh, did I mention that I got to hang out with Bob Wilson, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the Cosmic Microwave Background? Yeah, that was cool. He was in Green Bank for a design review, and it was quite generous to sit around and chat with us grad students and young scientists at night. He’ll happily retell the story of the CMB detection and also about his current work with sub-mm VLBI, like the recent work on Sgr A*. Thanks to Paul for letting me know that you guys were all hanging out in the lounge!)