[ECAR Summer 2008] Heidi Hammel – The future of exploration in astronomy

Heidi Hammel led the Hubble Telescope team that looked at the Shoemaker-Levy asteroid impact and works at the Space Science Institute in Boulder (though she lives in Ridgefield CT).

Telescopes – devices for gathering light. Refractive telescopes use lenses. Reflective telescopes use mirrors. Viewing through the atmosphere blurs your image. Adaptive optics helps – e.g. the hexagonal segments of the Keck telescope mirror which can adapt at 90 Hz. So why put a telescope in space? Clouds, but even clear atmosphere distorts light. Even worse, it absorbs light.

More to light than meets the eye. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs UV and infrared and some radio. Adaptive optics not suited for all visible wavelengths.

James Webb space telescope – 6.5 m “mirror” (adaptive). 3 cameras, 1 spectrometer. Less than half the cost of Hubble ($~ 4.5 B full life cycle). Launch date 2013. About a million miles out, at the L2 point – no way to service it. Collaborators from all over the country and all over the world. Need to coordinate. Needed a versatile platform for distributed configuration and data management – NGIN (Next Generation Integrated Network). Does all project management functions including risk management, action-item tracking, shared files for collaboration, etc. Being expanded and developed. Has kept the project on schedule and on budget for the past three years.

Webb origins science – four themes – first light and reionization; assembly of galaxies; birth of starts & protoplanetary systems; origins of the universe and life itself.

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope – to image entire accessible sky to a deep level with a wide field of view in a fast operational mode. To be built in Chile. Looking for time-variable phenomena in a huge wide swath of sky. Camera is a 3.5 degree sensor. 3200 megapixel camera. Designed to work fast. Six colors, 20k sq degrees at 0.2 arcsec/pixel with each field revisited 2,000 times. ~ 2 terabytes per hour, > 10 billion objects. “The Monster Truck of telescopes”. 6 GB of raw data every 15 seconds.

Fundamental BIG question – what is the fate of the universe? Contrary to previous models (Open, flat, Closed) recent observations of supernova indicate that the universe is accelerating. Some mysterious force is counteracting gravity – call it dark energy. It permeates all of space. As of the last couple of years, discovered 743% of the universe is dark energy (about 23% is dark matter). LSST is to investigate dark energy by taking precision measurements of four dark energy signatures in a single data set.

Another big question – what is our destiny? The military is observing meteor impacts from satellites that monitor large explosions. LSST will inventory the Near Earth Objects population.

Argo – Voyage Through The Outer Solar System

Use Neptune to get to the Kuiper Belt. Why go to Neptune again? Voyager flew by Neptune in 1989 (having launched in 1977). Old technology, besides – everything we can detect in the neptune system has changed in the last 20 years – cloud distribution, stratospheric tempaerature, its ring system, triton’s atmoshpere. etc. We can’t see the details to explain this. Kuiper belt – Pluto and 10,000 of his closest friends. Argo’s access ~4000 times bigger than that of New Horizons (current mission to Pluto). If launched in 2020, will get to Neptune in 2033, Kuiper belt in 2041. Argo team has never met in one place at one time. Entire mission is being remotely planned and executed. This mission is not unique – it’s emblematic of a new mode of operation.

Space Science Instituted – 501(c)(3) formed in 1992 in Boulder to enable world-class research in space and earth science. Heidi is the director of the research group, Also there’s a flight ops group that runs the Cassini spacecraft, and there’s a large education and public outreach group that builds museum exhibits. 30-50% of research staff distributed nationwide. Off-site from inception of ssi, for over 15 years. She quit MIT when they told her she had to sit in her office 5 days a week in Cambridge, when she lived in Conneticut. The off-site option offers significantly reduced grant overheads when compared to universities. Growth management is a challenge – lots of people want to work this way. Many young scientists are leaving (or not going to) academia for these kinds of alternatives.


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