Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘Physics’

Going dark: ISU abandoning the Fick Observatory

In University research on July 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm
The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU's Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU’s Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

For nearly 40 years, Iowa State University students and researchers made nightly drives west to a humble steel building in a wooded clearing southwest of Boone.

When skies were clear, they would roll back the roof and fire up a 24-inch reflector telescope and other, smaller instruments to focus on distant stars and galaxies.

But a visit to the Erwin W. Fick Observatory today finds no students or professors and little more than weeds. ISU has closed it and moved most of the telescopes and equipment to campus.

For the first time in decades, Iowa State has no major astronomical facility – and it’s unlikely to ever have one again.

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ISU star discoveries, from babies to seniors

In University research on February 2, 2015 at 7:25 am
Telescope caught the attention of a volunteer classifying objects for  the Milky Way Project. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the ISU release.

The “yellowballs” in the middle of this image from the Spitzer Space Telescope caught the attention of a volunteer classifying objects for the Milky Way Project. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the ISU release.

Astrophysics is in the news at Iowa State University, with two publications out in the last week.

One addresses a puzzle posed by a nonscientist who was examining infrared-light images of Milky Way objects: What are those yellow balls? The answer has to do with stars’ early lives.

The second goes to the other end of the galactic timeline. With help from the planet-hunting Kepler satellite, researchers identified one of the Milky Way’s oldest stars and a collection of rocky planets orbiting it.

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Exoplanets from a somewhat different angle

In University research on October 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm
TILT TILT pinball machine

Photo credit: Dice.com via photopin cc

It’s often how the best scientific discoveries start: When a scientist says, “Well, that’s weird.”

That was pretty much Steve Kawaler’s reaction when he saw data from Kepler-56, one of dozens of stars NASA’s Kepler space telescope flagged as likely to have orbiting planets, known as exoplanets.

Kawaler, an Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy, is part of a committee overseeing Kepler’s asteroseismic (no, that’s not a typo) research. Asteroseismology is a lot like Earth-bound seismology, Kawaler says. “It’s the same mathematics, the same physics” describing wave propagation and response to conditions like pressure.

But with stars 3,000 light-years away, as Kepler-56 is, scientists can’t plant monitors on the surface to detect and measure waves, like they do here. Instead, astronomers watch for subtle oscillations in light from the star. The frequency and magnitude of those oscillations, combined with readings from instruments like spectrometers, can tell astronomers a lot, including the radius, mass and age of a star and how fast it rotates.

Asteroseismology and other data seemed to tell Kawaler and others in an international team something about Kepler-56 and its planets that they had never seen before.

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