Studying the Past, Pioneering the Future

Jun 13, 2005
Studying the Past, Pioneering the Future

Astronomers are meeting this week in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss recent advances generated by a new astronomical facility-the Submillimeter Array (SMA) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A joint project of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA), the SMA has opened a new window onto the cosmos by observing radiation from some of the coldest, dustiest, and most distant objects in the universe.

Image: The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), shown here in this artist's conception, will follow the trail blazed by the SMA and bring a depth of understanding to planet, star and galaxy formation in the southern skies. To be located in Chile, ALMA will be comprised of 64 12-meter-diameter movable antennas, providing a resolution as fine as 0.01 arcseconds. Credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ)

"The SMA is the latest in a long line of cutting-edge research facilities developed by the Smithsonian," said Jim Moran, SMA director. "It demonstrates the Smithsonian's commitment to remaining at the frontier of scientific research."

Atop the highest volcanic peak in the Hawaiian Island chain, the SMA explores the universe by detecting light at wavelengths (or colors) that are not visible to the human eye. It receives millimeter and submillimeter radiation, so named because the wavelength ranges from 0.3 to 1.7 millimeters, or 0.01 to 0.07 inches. The SMA combines signals from eight 6-meter-diameter movable antennas to achieve very high resolution, comparable to the best ground-based optical telescopes.

At submillimeter wavelengths, the SMA can peer into the most distant reaches of the observable universe, studying objects whose light has taken billions of years to reach the earth. In doing so, it sees those objects as they existed billions of years ago, when the universe was a fraction of its present age.

SMA observations have uncovered some surprises. For example, astronomers recently focused on a class of objects called submillimeter galaxies, which were discovered using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, also on Mauna Kea. Hubble images were unable to discern the nature of these primordial galaxies because they were too distant or too dusty.

The SMA has clarified the nature of these mystery objects, revealing that many submillimeter galaxies are undergoing intense bursts of star formation hidden behind massive amounts of dust.

"The SMA literally has seen what Hubble can't see," said astronomer Daisuke Iono of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "The unique capabilities of the SMA allow it to detect and make high-resolution images of these young galaxies."

"With the SMA, we immediately pinpointed the exact location of two galaxies that were actively forming stars at an exceptional rate more than 10 billion years ago," added astronomer Alison Peck (CfA).

SMA observations are expected to help clarify the nature of many cosmic objects from distant galaxies to nearby star forming regions. It will examine those objects at high angular resolution in preparation for more detailed and more sensitive studies by its eventual successor, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

"SMA is blazing a path of discovery across northern skies that ALMA will follow as it brings a depth of understanding to planet, star and galaxy formation in the southern skies," said Al Wootten, ALMA project scientist.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Explore further: Liquid crystal bubble OASIS in space

Related Stories

Ears, grips and fists take on mobile phone user ID

14 hours ago

A research project has been under way to explore a biometric authentication system dubbed Bodyprint, with interesting test results. Bodyprint has been designed to detect users' biometric features using the ...

More than 2,200 confirmed dead in Nepal earthquake

14 hours ago

A powerful aftershock shook Nepal on Sunday, making buildings sway and sending panicked Kathmandu residents running into the streets a day after a massive earthquake left more than 2,200 people dead.

Recommended for you

Robotically discovering Earth's nearest neighbors

1 minute ago

A team of astronomers using ground-based telescopes in Hawaii, California, and Arizona recently discovered a planetary system orbiting a nearby star that is only 54 light-years away. All three planets orbit ...

Radio silence as Russia tries to contact space cargo

39 minutes ago

Russia will try again in the coming hours to make contact with an unmanned cargo ship after communications were lost following the spacecraft's launch toward the International Space Station, NASA said Tuesday.

Strong evidence for coronal heating theory presented

3 hours ago

The Sun's surface is blisteringly hot at 6,000 kelvins or 10,340 degrees Fahrenheit—but its atmosphere is another 300 times hotter. This has led to an enduring mystery for those who study the Sun: What ...

The view from up there, down here

6 hours ago

When many people saw the first stunning photos of the fragile blue marble of Earth from space, it changed their outlook of humanity. It was a singular moment in time when people around the world were watching ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.