Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 25, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY


Physicist looks to stars

Luke Keller, associate professor of physics, has been awarded four nights at the Very Large Telescope in Chile this June. The telescope is operated by the European Southern Observatory at the Paranal Observatory on Cerro Paranal, a 2,635-meter high mountain in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

Keller will be exploring systems outside of this galaxy and will work with a research team of students when he returns next semester to analyze the data.

Staff Writer Gillian Smith spoke to Keller about his opportunity to view and analyze solar systems.

Gillian Smith: How did you first become interested in astronomy?

Luke Keller: I’ve always been interested in where things come from. Since I am a physicist and astronomer, origins of solar systems and stars have always been a fascinating question for me.

GS: How did the opportunity to observe stars in Chile come to you?

LK: It’s a proposal process, kind of like applying for a grant, except instead of money you get time on the telescope. Twice a year they allow people to submit a proposal, which was a three-page essay about what project I had, why I needed their big telescope to do it and why I couldn’t do it anywhere else.

GS: What did your application essay focus on?

LK: I had two arguments. One is that the objects that I am looking at are only visible from the southern hemisphere. I needed an observatory in the south, which is why I chose the Chilean telescope. That telescope is one of the biggest on the earth. I needed it to be big because the objects I am looking at are extremely faint.

GS: What are the objects you’ll be looking at?

LK: I’m 95 percent sure that they are very young solar systems like ours. They are located in another galaxy outside of the Milky Way, which makes them chemically different. In other words, the chemical elements that are available there to form the planets are in slightly different proportions than they were when our solar systems were formed. I’m trying to figure out if that makes them form different planets.

GS: How did you discover these solar systems?

LK: They had been observed before, but the people who had observed them didn’t recognize them as young solar systems. What I did was I found a fairly large list of objects that might be [solar systems] and then I used the Spitzer Space Telescope to look at them last year. The ones from that observation [that] looked the most like planetary systems are the ones I chose for this project.

GS: Who is on your research team?

LK: Myself, my students, an astronomer that I work with in England and an astronomer at Cornell [University] who I have been working with for a few years.

GS: What do you think will be the most rewarding aspect of this trip?

LK: We get to look at these new solar systems in more detail than we ever have. That’s exciting. It’s also kind of cool to go to the big observatory. It’s a very exciting place to be.