A new burst of cosmic breakthroughs
When you look up at the night sky, searching the heavens for planets, stars, and galaxies, you’re actually looking at the past—sometimes thousands, millions, and even billions of years into the history of the universe. That’s because the light from those celestial bodies takes that long to reach Earth. Astronomers can use this to their advantage as they seek to answer questions about the early universe and its evolution. Ironically, it is the pursuit of understanding the past that is driving innovation in space technology. With only 10,000 professional astronomers in the world, and just 35 faculty astronomers at UMass Amherst (one of only 10 programs in the state), our scientists have been a part of an astounding number of groundbreaking collaborations.
Magnetic fields? There’s a map for that
When Christina Williams ’10MS, ’14PhD and Assistant Professor Katherine Whitaker ’05 made observations at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (a collection of 66 radio telescopes in Chile) over a year ago, they had no idea they would actually make a field-altering discovery—12.5-billion-year-old light from inside a “monster” galaxy. Roughly the size of the Milky Way, this galaxy challenges the notion that early galaxies were small and slow to create stars. Williams had noticed a dim light: “It was very mysterious, but the light seemed not to be linked to any known galaxy at all. When I saw this galaxy was invisible at any other wavelength, I got really excited, because it meant that it was probably really far away and hidden by clouds of dust,” she explains. This new find ignites even more questions, including “How common are these hidden galaxies and how does their prevalence change our understanding of galaxy formation?”
Williams and Whitaker plan to continue studying their newly discovered galaxy with the help of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch later this year. This high-powered infrared telescope will allow them to peer through the dust veil around the galaxy to study the properties of the stars within it and start answering some very old questions about the universe.
An Earth-sized telescope
National Academy of Sciences gets another UMass member
Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the Department of Astronomy, has been formally inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors in the scientific community. This well-deserved recognition highlights her remarkable career of award-winning original research focused on star formation, and on galaxy formation and evolution. Calzetti is known worldwide for “Calzetti’s Law,” a tool she developed in the mid-1990s that, among other things, allows astronomers to estimate how much information they are missing due to dust obscuring probes of very distant galaxies.