University of Rochester

Rochester Astronomers Collaborate to Study the Stars

May 30, 2000

Two leaders in the study of the cosmos are coming together to create the Rochester Astrophysical Consortium (RAC), a team of astronomers and physicists comparable to the best academic research teams in the world. The University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology will share data and cooperate on projects such as NASA's next generation space telescope and the most sensitive airborne telescope ever developed. The collaboration will be announced at the American Astronomical Society's biannual meeting, held in Rochester, June 4 to 8.

"Rochester is the optics center for the world, and what is astronomy but optics?" says Adam Frank, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Rochester and RAC coordinator. "It's a perfect fit, two universities with cutting-edge astronomy programs with access to the world's best optics."

In addition to Rochester's optics facilities, members of the collaboration will have access to the most powerful laser in the world, the University of Rochester's Omega laser. The team will use the laser to generate conditions that make the heart of the sun look like a pleasant summer day-conditions like those in supernova blast waves or hypersonic gas jets from newborn stars.

"Both our astronomy programs have much to be proud of, but together we'll be able to take on larger projects," says Ian Gatley, director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at RIT. The collaboration, he says, will help the researchers feed off the exchange of ideas, sparking new directions for exploration that may help bring more astronomers to Rochester to pursue those directions.

One area in which both schools are strong is infrared astronomy. The first infrared telescope ever turned to the skies was designed and operated by Judith Pipher and William Forrest, professors of astronomy at the University of Rochester; they remain world leaders in infrared astronomy, having just completed work on NASA's next space telescope. The infrared telescope will be launched out of Earth's orbit to take pictures of parts of the universe invisible to the Hubble and ground-based infrared telescopes. The team, along with Professor of Astronomy Dan Watson, is also working on the Next Generation Space Telescope, which will replace Hubble and detect more faint light at more wavelengths to bring once-undetectable phenomena into view for the first time. Other astronomers and physicists at the University are also probing more theoretical questions, such as how space itself is warped around black holes.

RIT is developing integrated software for SOFIA, the stratospheric observatory for infrared astronomy. RIT's Joel Kastner, associate professor of astronomical imaging, and Robert Krzaczek, systems manager, lead an imaging team to meet astronomer's processing needs. The team is developing software to process, reduce and analyze SOFIA data, and to create a common interface for easy use.

Astronomers from RIT are also part of the Center for Astrophysics at the South Pole, where six-month-long nights and pollution-free skies provide some of the clearest viewing on Earth. In addition, RIT imaging science Professor Zoran Ninkov is developing new radiation-hardened imaging sensors to protect satellite-mounted cameras from radiation. Ninkov is one of NASA's chief advisers on imaging sensor technology. Ninkov and RIT astronomer Robert Slawson are experimenting with liquid-crystal filters to obtain low-resolution scans of star clusters.

The two schools, both members of the University Space Research Association, have already begun working together-lining up interests to see where they overlap or complement each other, and even requesting research money from the National Science Foundation for projects that are too expansive for either group of scientists alone. The six astronomers from RIT, combined with the six from the University of Rochester, yield an astronomy team comparable with the nation's biggest universities.

"We saw an opportunity," says Frank. "Both the University and RIT had hired several new astronomers, and we saw that there was a synergy that was ripe for the picking. We can take two separate programs of excellence and create something even stronger."

The Strasenburg Planetarium has also signed on as a member, and Frank expects other Rochester institutions to become partners as well. Page 2 of 2