Keck Observatory Astronomer Wins Top Award

W. M. Keck Observatory press release…

A Keck Observatory astronomer who led the way to the discovery of a super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy has been recognized this week with the 2012 Crafoord Prize in Astronomy, an award almost as prestigious for astronomers as a Nobel Prize.

“This is a big one. I’m thrilled,” said Andrea Ghez of the University of California at Los Angeles. For more than 16 years Ghez and her team have been pushing the frontiers of high-resolution imaging technologies with the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes in order to explore the center of the Milky Way. By tracking the rapid, small-scale orbits of stars at the Galactic Center, they discovered the presence of a source of tremendous gravity – the best evidence yet that a supermassive black hole exists there. The reality of such an object confronts and challenges our knowledge of fundamental physics.

Continue reading “Keck Observatory Astronomer Wins Top Award”

Keck and a Nobel Prize

We are celebrating a bit at Keck today. It is somewhat unusual for an astronomer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Today it was announced that three astronomers will share the award for their work in cosmology. Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess led a pair of teams that were investigating the expansion of the universe through observing type Ia supernovae. Saul Perlmutter led the Supernova Cosmology Project, while Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess led a separate group, the High-Z Supernova Search, performing nearly identical work.

Both teams discovered something disturbing in the data. The expansion of our universe appeared not to be slowing as astronomers expected, but actually accelerating. The result, had both teams scrambling to understand the data, checking and triple checking everything in an attempt to see where they had gone wrong in their analysis. When each team finally published they were glad to see that they were not alone, that another group had independently confirmed this unexpected discovery.

A couple decades later we have come to accept this result as further data has accumulated. We now understand that there is another element of the universe that had not been appreciated before. What the astronomers had found was the effects of something that had been hinted at in a number of physicists theories (including Einstein), something we now call Dark Energy.

SN2011fe in M101
Type Ia supernova, SN2011fe, in the galaxy M101
The teams used a number of different telescopes in a coordinated effort to both discover and then obtian the spectral data on the supernovae. Smaller telescopes would be used to discover the supernovae, searching wide swaths of sky looking for these rare events. Then the team would use large telescopes, like Keck, to gather the spectral data of the supernovae. The spectra would confirm the event as a type Ia supernova and give the redshift.

The most critical data, the spectra of the furthest and faintest supernovae, were made possible by the Keck telescopes, then the largest in the world. It is these most distant objects where the effect of our universe’s accelerated expansion is most noticeable. Looking through the tables of data in the original scientific papers, the Keck Observatory is often credited.

It is somewhat unfortunate that only a few individuals are named with a Nobel Prize. The discovery of dark energy and the acceleration of the expansion was an effort made by teams of individuals. Both supernovae search teams and all the members deserve real recognition for this. In turn their efforts depended on the staffs of the observatories that made the observations possible. Big discoveries are rarely made by individual scientists, but by the cooperative effort of many. There are only three names on the Nobel Prize, but a lot of folks are celebrating today.