News from around the BoV
and the Texas Astronomy Program
This issue's news items include: Recognitions and Awards for BoV members and for UT Austin astronomers; new telescopes and facilities are taking shape at McDonald Observatory; A UT Austin astronomer helped director Terrence Malick make his movie The Tree of Life; Carolyn Porter joins the McDonald Observatory staff; and more.
* International press coverage for discovery of most massive known black holes
University of Texas at Austin's Karl Gebhardt, the Herman and Joan Suit Professor in Astrophysics, and graduate student Jeremy Murphy were part of the team that published a paper in the December 7, 2011, issue of Nature on the two most massive black holes ever discovered, with as much as 10 billion solar masses each. Lead authors on the paper are graduate student Nicholas McConnell and professor Chung-Pei Ma of The University of California, Berkeley. Their team measured the black holes' masses by combining observations of the fast-moving stars at their hearts made with the giant Gemini and Keck telescopes in Hawaii, along with observations of the galaxies' diffuse outer regions using the George and Cynthia Mitchell Spectrograph (which used to be called VIRUS-P) on the 2.7-meter Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory.
Early this year, Gebhardt and Murphy had announced the previous record-holder black hole mass in the galaxy M87, at 6.7 billion suns. The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in Austin also played a role in the discovery, creating models needed to deduce the masses of the supermassive black holes.
Hundreds of Web sites and news sources carried the story, including the PBS Newshour program, which featured an interview with Professor Ma on December 6. You can see that interview at:
Newly Discovered Massive Black Holes Dwarf Previous Record Holders
And you can read the full background on Gebhardt and Murphy's research at:
Pair of black holes 'weigh in' at 10 billion Suns; most massive yet
* Former BoV Chair David Chappell is joining the board of Radio Marfa KRTS in January.
Carolyn Goldston honored at the 2011 Austin Urban League banquet
* BoV Associate Member Carolyn Goldston has just been appointed to the advisory council of The University of Texas at Austin's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, and she has been named Board Member of The Year by the Austin Urban League.
* The Web site SpaceRef.com featured a story about an unusual Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) on Christmas Day, 2010, and a paper explaining features of the GRB published on December 2, 2011, in the journal Nature. The story highlights observations at McDonald Observatory by Korean students working with professors Myungshin Im of Seoul National University and Soojong Pak of Kyung Hee University. While Drs. Im and Pak had left the observatory, the students were at McDonald Observatory on Christmas Day (actually taking part in a Christmas party hosted by McDonald Observatory Director David Lambert in House A) when a text message alerted them to the GRB, discovered only a few hours earlier by the space telescope Swift. They used the Korean-built CQUEAN (Camera for Quasars in the Early Universe) instrument on the 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope to study the object. Their observations helped reveal how unusual the "Christmas Burst" was, requiring a new model for the origin of at least some GRBs. Find the SpaceRef.com at:
Cosmic Explosion Explained Just in Time for Christmas
* Sally Dodson Robinson wins Prestigious NSF Career Grant University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor Sally Dodson-Robinson has received a Faculty Early Career Development award of $363,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which she will use to use to investigate how tiny, micrometer-size dust grains in planet nurseries affect the growth and development of gas giants -- the largest planets our galaxy can build. It will also provide support to create the New Orbits educational program, in which Dodson-Robinson will build a learning community centered on planetary science for a group of 20 first-year college students.
These prestigious NSF awards, called CAREER grants, recognize promising young faculty members and support their research and education missions with five years of funding.
Sally Dodson Robinson wins Prestigious NSF Career Grant
Coating tank, part of the HET's new mirror-coating facility
* A new mirror-coating facility at the HET: In the October issue of Superintendant Tom Barnes's Observers' News newsletter, HET Facility Manager Herman Kriel reported: "Construction of the new mirror coating facility is nearing completion with only minor items outstanding in the clean room and office cubicles in the mirror lab." The new facility has been installed in what had been the control room on the ground floor of the HET (the control room has moved to the second floor). It will greatly improve the quality of the coatings on the HET mirrors and make the task of cleaning and recoating the mirrors easier and safer than before. Reports Kriel: "Most of the work is being done in house by our own engineers and technicians, and the entire team needs to be commended for the time and effort they put in to make this happen. Doing most of this work in house saved us to date in the order of $500K." Partial funding for the facility has been provided by grants from the Windy Ridge Foundation in memory of the late Harry C. Vaughan.
* University of Texas-led Team Discovers Unusual Multi-Planet System with NASA's Kepler Spacecraft: In October, a world-wide team of astronomers led by University of Texas at Austin Senior Research Scientist Bill Cochran announced the discovery of a rare three-planet system orbiting a star in our galaxy. The first detection of the planets, orbiting a star dubbed Kepler 18, was made by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope; later follow-up to determine the masses and orbits of the planets was done by astronomers using telescopes all around the world, including several at McDonald Observatory.
In a process called "validation", Cochran and his team utilized the Palomar 5-meter (200-inch) Hale Telescope and its adaptive optics to take another look at Kepler 18 and its system. "We successively went through every possible type of object that could be there," Cochran says. "There are limits on the sort of objects that can be there at different distances from the star." The findings were negative. The planetary trio survived the next stage of identification. "We're trying to prepare the astronomical community and the public for the concept of validation," Cochran says. "The goal of Kepler is to find an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone, with a one-year orbit. Proving that such an object really is a planet is very difficult. When we find what looks to be a habitable Earth, we'll have to use a validation process, rather than a confirmation process. We're going to have to make statistical arguments." Read more about the announcement at the web site UniverseToday.com:
NASA's Kepler Dishes Up A Triple Planet Treat
* BoV Associate Member Doug Renfro of Fort Worth reports that his family business, Renfro Foods, was honored with two awards in September: the Smart Moves Award from the Fort Worth Business Press and the Founders Award from Baylor University's Institute for Family Business, that "Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper Salsa," was featured on "Good Morning America's" overview of new products at the Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington, DC. amd that Renfro Foods is partnering with NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, N.M., in support of creating a permanent research endowment for the Institute.
You can see Doug talking about the Ghost Pepper Salsa at:
Video: A taste of Ghost Pepper, one of the world's hottest chilis
* "Goldilocks Planet" - University of Texas at Austin Research Scientist and graduate student play key role in discovery: UT Research Scientist Michael Endl and graduate student Paul Robertson, using the Harlan J. Smith Telescope at McDonald Observatory, played a key role in confirming the mass and orbit of a planet orbiting the star named Kepler 22. The planet, called Kepler-22b, orbits the star at a distance that's neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist, in the "habitable zone." Endl and Robertson, two of the members McDonald Observatory's Kepler Telescope team, were part of the announcement about Kepler-22b made by the Kepler Telescope's Principal Investigator, William Borucki of NASA Ames Research Center, at a Kepler science conference there on December 5.
Besides Endl and Robertson, the McDonald Observatory Kepler team includes Senior Research Scientist Bill Cochran (a Co-Investigator of the Kepler mission), Senior Research Scientist Phillip MacQueen, graduate student Eric Brugamyer, and undergraduate Caroline Caldwell.
Find out more about several other planets confirmed or validated using McDonald Observatory telescopes at:
NASA Mission, Texas Astronomers Collaborate to find Goldilocks Planet, Others
Susan and Gery Muncey
* Member Nominees Susan and Gery Muncey announce the creation of Susan's new online venture, Sqwick.com, which Gery describes as "a very affordable mobile and online to-go ordering for restaurants." He adds: "Sqwick.com has now officially launched and they are actively looking to sign up restaurants in Houston and all over Texas." Find more information at:
* Bill Powers highlights astromomy in end-of-year message: The end-of-year message sent out by The University of Texas at Austin's President Bill Powers says "While 2011 likely will be remembered for its many challenges, I will remember it as the year we saw all of our major constituencies unite in support of advancing this institution to the top of American public higher education," (Editor's note: something the Board of Visitors resolution to the University of Texas Board of Regents played a major role in). Powers links to a retrospective of news from The University in 2011, which begins with three stories about Texas Astronomy:
A Year in Review
* McArthur and Benedict win Hamilton Award for Best Research Paper: McDonald Observatory astronomers Research Scientist Barbara E. McArthur and Senior Research Scientist George "Fritz" Benedict were awarded the University Co-op's $5,000 Hamilton Best Research Paper Award for "New Observational Constraints on the Upsilon Andromedae System with Data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Hobby-Eberly Telescope" (published in The Astrophysical Journal, June 1, 2010). You can find more about this year's award winners at:
University Co-op 2011 Hamilton Awards
Volker Bromm at TACC's Visualization Lab
* UT Astronomer Volker Bromm's simulations of the early Universe can be found in prize-winning film. After he published a story about the early Universe in Sky and Telescope magazine, University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Astronomy Volker Bromm was contacted by the film director Terrence Malick, who wanted to show the cosmic dark ages and the first light in his upcoming film, "The Tree of Life." Bromm, working with the Texas Advance Computing Center in Austin and with computer scientists led by Donna Cox at the University of Illinois, created computer simulations that were later polished into the special effects seen in the film. "When I had the first meeting with Terry Malick he said that he wanted to get it right...he didn't want to just make up stuff," says Bromm. Read more about how Bromm's scientific research shows in the film (and his movie review) in the TACC's press release at:
Simulating the Universe for Movie Fans
New telescopes for McDonald Observatory research and outreach: New telescopes are soon to be added at McDonald for research and outreach, courtesy of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) Network, Wayne Rosing, and Dr. Alan Y. Chow.
Dr. Chow, an ophthalmologist in Chicago, is loaning a high-quality 24-inch f/8 Ritchey-Chretien telescope that is being installed next to the amphitheater of the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. It will be used by Visitors Center staff and the public during star parties and for special K-12 educational programs, and Dr. Chow will observe with it remotely in off hours. Up the hill, a one-meter telescope owned by LCOGT is being installed on Mount Fowlkes, south of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, It's the first installed telescope of a worldwide network of 1-meter, 2-meter, and .4-meter telescopes that LCOGT has planned for research, K-12 education, and public outreach. According to McDonald Observatory Superintendent Tom Barnes, the eventual plan for the Mount Fowlkes site calls for three 1-meter telescopes and six .4-meter telescopes.
Wayne Rosing, the president of LCOGT, worked with McDonald Observatory's Bill Wren, other observatory staff, and LCOGT colleagues on construction of the Wren-Marcario Accessible Telescope (WMAT) at the Visitors Center, which was dedicated in 2010. You can see more on the WMAT at:
McDonald Observatory Dedicates Wheelchair-Accessible Telescope for Visitors
and you can watch a webcam showing the construction progress on the LCOGT 1-meter telescope at the following link (click on the webcam in the upper left corner of the page it takes you to):
McDonald Observatory Web Cams
* Carolyn Porter has joined the development staff at McDonald Observatory as a Director of Development. Carolyn comes to UT Astronomy with a stellar record as a fund-raiser, most recently at the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. She'll be focusing on raising funds for The University of Texas at Austin's partnership share in the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will provide next-generation facilities to our astronomers and keep Texas a world leader beyond HETDEX. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 512-471-1305.
* Remember those "faster than light" neutrinos? Conflicting Followup Experiments: On September 23, the OPERA team at the CERN, the famed European particle accelerator, and the Italian Gran Sasso National Laboratory announced "an anomoly in flight time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso" -- a finding that some neutrinos seemed to have made the trip between the two stations at faster-than-light speed, which, if true, would contradict decades of experimental evidence supporting the theory of relativity and the rules of modern physics. The Italian scientists said that they had cross-checked their equipment to rule out instrumental effects and invited the world scientific community to weigh in on the subject. On November 18, another Gran Sasso experiment came up with the same result. But on November 21, the ICARUS team, also at Gran Sasso, announced that they had refuted the original finding by studying the energy spectrum of the neutrino beam. Other experiments at Fermilab and at KEK Laboratory in Japan are planned. See more at:
Study rejects "faster than light" particle finding