Anna Frebel on the search for the oldest stars

Frebel jacketAstronomers study the oldest observable stars in the universe in much the same way that archaeologists study ancient artifacts on Earth. Stellar archaeologist Anna Frebel is credited with discovering several of the oldest and most primitive stars, and her book, Searching for the Oldest Stars is a gripping firsthand account of her work. Recently she took the time to answer some questions:

What is your main research topic and what is stellar archaeology?

AF: My work is broadly centered on finding the oldest stars in the universe and using them to explore how the first stars and the first galaxies formed soon after the Big Bang. This works because these ancient stars are about 13 billion years old and they are still shining. The universe itself, by comparison, is 13.8 billion years old. I find these ancient stars in the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, using a large telescope. I’m also researching how the chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were first created in those early stars, which ultimately allowed Earth to form and to bring about life in the universe.

What is your biggest discovery?

AF: I have been fortunate enough to discover several “record holding stars”. In 2007, I found a 13.2 billion year-old star, which is incredibly old. This followed the 2005 discovery of the chemically most primitive star – a star of the second generation of stars to have formed in the universe. Since then, I have analyzed some incredible ancient stars in dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way galaxy, and together with my team, we have recently beaten said 2005 record, which was enormously exciting.

Why do people say we are made from stardust?

AF: We humans are made from all sorts of different chemical elements, mostly carbon. We breathe oxygen and nitrogen, we wear silver and gold jewelry. All these elements were once, atom by atom, created inside different kinds of stars and their supernova explosions over the course of billions of years. Studying this evolution of the chemical elements in the universe with the help of ancient stars means that I’m literally studying the cosmic origins of the building blocks of life. So we really are closely connected with the universe, far more than we realize.

How did you decide to become a scientist?

AF: From a young age I knew I wanted to study stars. They were just so fascinating to me, these big spheres of gas, fusing new elements to gain energy to shine for eons in the sky. Fortunately, I received good advice during high school on how to become an astronomer. After studying physics until 2002, I turned to astronomy and the rest is history. Today, I take pride in sharing my story with young people and the general public by telling them what astronomers do on a daily basis, and how scientific results are achieved. I am passionate about conveying the importance of science literacy to the young and the young at heart while inspiring them with the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

What kind of telescope is used for your astronomical observations?

AF: Astronomers use all kinds of different telescopes on Earth as well as from space to peer deep into the cosmos. It depends on the type of project and the brightness of the objects which telescope is best suited. Space observations are being carried out remotely, whereas ground-based observations are still done by the astronomer who has to travel to the telescope. More and more telescopes are becoming automated to enable remote controlled “office observing”.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Anna Frebel in front of the 6.5m Magellan Telescope in Chile.

Are you traveling to any telescopes?

AF: Yes, I regularly fly to Chile to the Magellan Telescopes to carry out my observations. These are some of the largest telescopes in the world and the dark night sky in the Southern Hemisphere is terrific for studying the cosmos. It’s the favorite part of my job and I love discovering new facts about the universe through these observations!

What does it mean when you say you’re going observing?

AF: To use the telescopes, you have to fly to Chile. First to Santiago, then to La Serena and from there is a 2-3h drive up the mountains of the Atacama Desert where the telescopes are. There are guest rooms there for the observers to sleep during the day and the observatory chefs are cooking delicious meals for everyone. Dinner is eaten together by all observers, including the technical staff. It’s a little community with the sole purposes of caring for the telescopes and obtaining exquisite astronomical observations all night long of a breathtaking sky.

What does a typical night at the telescope look like?

AF: All preparations for the night happen during the afternoon while it’s still light outside. After sunset, I usually choose the first targets from my list, which I begin to observe soon after dark. Each star is observed for 10-30 minutes. We immediately inspect each observation and then decide on the fly whether we need more data or not. If we have found an interesting old star we may choose to immediately observe it for a few more hours.

Did anything ever go wrong at the telescopes?

AF: Of course! Mostly when it’s cloudy because then we can’t observe any starlight. This can be very frustrating because it can mean that we have to come back to the telescope a year later to try again. Clouds spell bad luck. Other times, the air layers above the telescope are often not as smooth as is required. This makes the stars twinkle and appear less sharp, which means less good data and longer exposure times. And sometimes there are technical problems with the telescope too.

How do you get your telescope time? Can I go to your telescope and observe, too?

AF: To obtain telescope time, astronomers have to submit a proposal to a committee that selects the best projects and awards them the time. The proposal contains a detailed description of the project and the technical details on what information is being sought. Telescope use is restricted to professional astronomers because of the considerable expense. The cost is about USD 50,000 to 100,000 per night, depending on the telescope, and often paid by various institutions and universities who jointly operate observatories. While this is a lot of money, it’s actually not that much in comparison to many other research facilities.

Are there any special moments at the telescope that you remember in particular?

AF: Yes, going observing is always magical and memorable. Of course I particularly remember big discoveries and the excited nervousness of checking and checking whether we didn’t make a mistake and that the discovery was really what it appeared to be. Then, there have been the frustrating moments of sitting at the telescopes for nights on end listening to the rain and flying home empty-handed. I have been there when severe technical problems and even a bush fire prevented observing during clear nights. But I always associate observing with the most colorful sunsets, the calm and peaceful atmosphere up in the mountains, and of course the sleepless but exciting nights.

Anna Frebel is the Silverman (1968) Family Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is author of Searching for the Oldest Stars, and has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

World Space Week Quiz Answers! #WSW2013

Dreams of Other WorldsIn case you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seat since you took our World Space Week Quiz, dying to know why you got a 91% instead of 100%, anticipate no longer! Check out the answers below and be sure to also pick up a copy of Chris Impey and Holly Henry’s brand new book, titled Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration.


1) Which unmanned spacecraft landed on Mars for the first time in US history in 1976?

Viking! The Viking probes were the first to orbit and touch down on Mars, taking high-res photos and exploring for any potential signs of life. (no signs of any Martian activity yet…)

2) Which space probe collected cosmic dust from the comet Wild 2 in 1999?

Stardust! The Stardust followed Wild 2 (a comet approximately 5 kilometers in diameter) to follow samples and take photos of its surface.

3) Which satellite was the first to map the stars and was named after a Greek astronomer?

Hipparcos! Named in reference to the Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, the Hipparcos contains various datasets for known stars, allowing us to catalog their position and distance.

4) Which two spacecrafts were known as the “Tireless Twins” for their long-distance exploration of other planet’s systems?

The Voyagers! This gruesome twosome was originally supposed to just explore Jupiter and Saturn, bu they ended up going all of the way out to Uranus and Neptune as well.

5) Which space telescope launched in 1999 allowed NASA to observe X-rays outside of Earth’s atmosphere?

Chandra! Known as one of the four “Great Observatories”, Chandra is still observing X-rays from space today.

6) Which spacecraft launched in 1995 monitors the “humming” of the Sun’s sound waves?

SOHO! The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (or SOHO) both explores the outer layers of the Sun and gets readings of radiant energy (in the form of sound waves) to learn about its interior structure.

7) What two spacecrafts were the first of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Missions to explore the surface and geology of Mars?

Spirit and Opportunity! This dynamic duo has been exploring the surface of Mars for quite some time, taking samples that help determine whether or not there was ever water on Mars, the general geology of the planet, and whether or not life could potentially be supported there.

8) Along with COBE, which spacecraft helps to map the radiant energy let off by the Big Bang?

WMAP! The WMAP measures differences in the temperature of the Big Bang’s remnant radiant heat in the sky to help us better understand the Big Bang as a model.

9) Which space telescope, launched in 2003, has the ability to see through interstellar dust to observe the distant formation of stars?

Spitzer! The Spitzer Space Telescope was the first infrared telescope of its time, allowing it to take photographs in space that were far better than any we had seen up until that point.

10) Which space telescope observes Earth atmosphere and has been in operation for over three decades?

Hubble! Probably the most famous of all the spacecrafts in this quiz, the Hubble Space Telescope is the only telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts in space.

11) Which spacecraft launched in 1997 orbits Saturn, exploring both the planet and its rings?

Cassini! After launching in 1997, it took Cassini seven years to reach Saturn’s orbit.


Proud of your score? Tweet it! #WSW2013


Want to see what these sorts of spacecrafts look like? Check out the infographic below!
00_impey_timeline

Welcome to World Space Week! #WSW2013

In honor of the 2013 World Space Week, we are celebrating all week long with all sorts of space-themed articles, quizzes, pictures, and more! To start of the week, which last from October 4th-10th, we put together a little quiz about some of the most famous and important unmanned space explorations in our nation’s history.
Feeling a little stumped? Fear not! Pick up a copy of Chris Impey and Holly Henry’s brand new book, titled Dreams of Other Worlds: The Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration, which talks all about spacecrafts, probes, telescopes, rovers, and of course, the solar system.



Comment what your score is below and if you want to see the answers, click here.
Proud of your score? Tweet it! #WSW2013

Happy Space Week!

William H. Waller Brings the Stars to The Huffington Post

William H. WallerWilliam H. Waller, astronomist and author of The Milky Way: An Insider’s Guide, recently wrote an article that was picked up by The Huffington Post for their blog. Based on this bio page that was also posted for Waller on HuffPost, we’re hoping this means he will be writing regularly about science and the stars, especially with some of the amazing pictures included in the article.


The post, which focuses on our ability to visibly see the Milky Way with all of the light pollution in the air, starts by saying:

The Milky Way“For most of human history, the night sky demanded our attention. The shape-shifting Moon, wandering planets, pointillist stars, and occasional comet enchanted our sensibilities while inspiring diverse tales of origin. The Milky Way, in particular, exerted a powerful presence on our distant ancestors. Rippling across the firmament, this irregular band of ghostly light evoked myriad myths of life and death among the stars. In 1609, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope heavenward and discovered that the Milky Way is “nothing but a congeries of innumerable stars grouped together in clusters.” Fast forward 400 years to the present day, and we find that the Milky Way has all but disappeared from our collective consciousness. Where did it go?”

To read the rest of the article on The Huffington Post, click here.


This book offers an intimate guide to the Milky Way, taking readers on a grand tour of our home Galaxy’s structure, genesis, and evolution, based on the latest astronomical findings. In engaging language, it tells how the Milky Way congealed from blobs of gas and dark matter into a spinning starry abode brimming with diverse planetary systems–some of which may be hosting myriad life forms and perhaps even other technologically communicative species.

Waller makes the case that our very existence is inextricably linked to the Galaxy that spawned us. Through this book, readers can become well-informed galactic “insiders”–ready to imagine humanity’s next steps as fully engaged citizens of the Milky Way.

William H. Waller is an astronomer, science educator, and writer. He lives with his family in Rockport, Massachusetts, where he can still see the Milky Way on dark moonless nights.