Austin Gulliver, chair of Brandon University’s physics and astronomy department, looks over the first image data brought down from the Hubble Space Telescope last week.
A Brandon University researcher is part of a group exploring some of the most important stars in the sky.
Austin Gulliver, chair of BU’s physics and astronomy department, is the only Canadian member of a team of 30 scientists from around the globe researching hot stars, which are 10,000 to 100,000 degrees — upwards of 20 times the temperature of our sun.
The group — made up of scientists from U.S., France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and New Zealand — are using the Hubble Space Telescope, the only telescope in orbit capable of capturing high-resolution photographs of hot stars.
"At the moment, the only telescope orbiting around our Earth that will allow you to do this kind of observation is the Hubble," Gulliver said.
These stars give off ultraviolet light, which is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere — a good thing for humans since UV rays are damaging or deadly. But it means scientists have to study hot stars from space.
The project, which will last several months, includes the study of about 20 hot stars and the first images from the project came down last week.
"The first star we just observed is rich in rare Earth elements, which are important in the making of exceptional strong magnets, TVs, computers, and lasers," he said. "Understanding other stars helps us to better understand our sun and the world we live in."
Gulliver said he’s anxious to observe Vega, the second most important star in astronomy after our own sun. Vega has been used for more than a century to calibrate astronomical measurement systems. Gulliver was part of a research team in the 1990s that discovered Vega was a hot star rotating at such an extreme speed that it bulges around the equator.
The Hubble will orbit Earth 230 times for the project — an unusually large amount, Gulliver said, adding it "reflects perceived importance of the project both in present-day astronomers as well as future astronomers.
"It will also provide an archive of material for the astronomers of the future," he said. "So in a generation, when I’m probably retired, scientists will still be studying the observations that we bring down from the Hubble Space Telescope."
Time is ticking for astronomers to take advantage of the world’s biggest and most versatile telescope. The 23-year-old Hubble is nearing the end of its life, with no plans to replace it.
"There’s no plans on anyone’s drawing board to replace those ultraviolet capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope," Gulliver said.
"This is almost a last chance for us to observe in the ultraviolet stars which are especially hot."
It’s still fully functional, but something on it will no doubt fail, and if something crucial fails, it’ll simply stop working and will be dropped back to Earth, likely plunging into the ocean.
"We don’t know when that’s going to be, of course ... but given the past history and the opinions of those who have been involved in such issues in the past, we’re looking at probably no more than five years, maybe at most 10 years."
While the American government remains shut down, most of NASA’s employees have been furloughed. Its website has been closed and phone lines have been disconnected.
However, news reports out of the U.S. say work on the Hubble has not stopped and NASA has enough cash on hand to keep the telescope going for a few more weeks, provided nothing goes wrong.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 15, 2013