Halcyon days for astronomy in the state of Texas

As their football teams clashed across the state this weekend, astronomers from 18 Texas institutions gathered inside a shiny new building on the Texas A&M University campus to make common cause.

Armed with laptops, tablets and even pen and paper, several dozen astronomers spoke of dark matter models, velocity dispersions, globular clusters and - yes, this is a thing - stripped dwarf galaxies.

But underlying the technical discussions in the basement auditorium of the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy lay a sense that, for Texas, the field of astronomy had come of age.

The first time a "Building Astronomy in Texas" meeting was held about five years ago, the astronomy department at the University of Texas, long the state's big dog, invited a handful of colleagues from College Station to Austin.

But since then, philanthropic investments by Houston oil man and A&M alumnus George Mitchell have paid dividends, bolstering Aggie astronomy after his death. Other institutions have bulked up too - to that point that when Texas A&M astronomer Jen Marshall planned this year's meeting, she found 150 colleagues across the state. About half attended.

"When I began organizing the meeting, I didn't quite know what I was getting into," she said Saturday, during a break. "The turnout is quite amazing."

Breathtaking finds

A large new telescope explains some of the draw. Both UT and A&M have committed $50 million toward construction of the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. When opened, as early as 2022, the instrument will be by far the largest optical telescope in the world.

The lure of time to use the telescope has already drawn several highly regarded astronomers to the state.

But it goes beyond just access to the giant telescope.

These are the halcyon days of astronomy. During the last quarter century, astronomers have made a host of breathtaking discoveries about the age of the universe, planets beyond our solar system, and much more. And yet the findings have only raised deeper questions about the cosmos.

Astronomers have, for example, pinned down the precise age of the universe to 13.8 billion years. But at the dawn of the universe 13 billion years ago, what did the first stars and galaxies look like? This is one question the Giant Magellan Telescope could answer.

Astronomers have also gone from not knowing whether planets are common around other stars to discovering that the Milky Way Galaxy teems with planets, billions of which are likely close in size to Earth.

They are also, for the first time, observing how planets form.

Andrea Isella, who came to Rice University last year from the California Institute of Technology, uses the most powerful telescopes on Earth and in space to try and glimpse the birth of planets around young stars.

During his brief talk Saturday morning Isella captured some of the exuberance of the field. With new instruments he and others are moving from theoretical guesses of how planets form to collecting images of this process in action. And his research is showing that planets appear to develop very rapidly, and sometimes far from the central star.

"Really, we do not even know how planets form," he said. That is the kind of stage we are at. This is extremely new."

Opportunity for more

Other astronomers spoke this weekend about the mystery of dark energy.

Within the last two decades scientists have come to understand that the universe, far from slowing down since the Big Bang that marked its formation, is in fact flying apart at accelerating rates. But what is causing this accelerating expansion? Scientists are using UT's McDonald observatory in West Texas to explore this force, but its nature remains elusive.

So this weekend astronomers from across Texas gave short talks and discussed their work, finding new collaborations and wondering what role the state could play in astronomy's age of great discovery.

As he surveyed the room Nick Suntzeff, who came to Texas A&M after playing a pivotal role in the discovery of dark energy, said he sensed a real moment of opportunity.

These astronomers, he said, should set aside their collegiate rivalries and come together to put the state's resources behind fueling further discovery. Everything's bigger in Texas, he mused, and what is bigger than everything else?

The universe, of course. 


Editor's Note: For photographs related to this article, click http://ow.ly/SO9O0.

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