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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 14, 1998
Johns Hopkins University Gains NASA Grant to Study Cosmos with Advanced Camera
A $20 million eight-year grant will aid a small team of world-class
astronomers, predominantly from The Johns Hopkins University, as they pursue
some of the most fundamental questions about the nature and structure of the
Funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will fuel
scientific research with the highly evolved Advanced Camera for Surveys,
which is scheduled for launch and coupling to the Hubble Space Telescope in
We are trying to focus on a small number of the outstanding questions in
astronomy, said Holland Ford, professor of astronomy at Hopkins and the
project's principal investigator. The camera will provide sensors with twice
the resolution of the wide field planetary camera now in use on Hubble and
gather data at 10 to 20 times the present efficiency. This will translate
into big gains for all the people who use the telescope for surveys.
As news of the grant reached the team at Hopkins and the Space Telescope
Science Institute, members of Ford's team prepared for the first round of
thermal and vacuum testing with engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center,
in Greenbelt, Md. At Ball Aerospace, in Boulder, Colo., technicians have
prepared the recently built instrument hardware for shipment at the end of
this month. With optical calibration testing scheduled for the beginning of
next year, Ford noted that the project is now on a fast track.
Generally, the team aims to investigate the formation and evolution of
galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as well as to research one of astronomers
most vexing puzzles -- the nature and distribution of the mysterious dark
matter that makes up the greatest bulk of the universe.
The new technology will greatly extend the reach and clarity of the space
telescope with three cameras that should yield more sweeping, panoramic views,
improved ultraviolet capabilities and a more acute sensor for detecting faint
objects normally obscured by the illumination of bright ones.
A coronagraph on the Advance Camera System will be particularly helpful, Ford
said, as the astronomers search our solar system's most famous nearby binary
star, Alpha Centauri, for the existence of planets.
Capable of blocking out 99 percent of external light as well as masking light
defracted by optics inside the camera, the coronagraph will let scientists
scour the Alpha Centauri system for large objects. Enhancing the space
telescope's present contrasting ability significantly, the new instrument
improves chances of discovering Jupiter-sized planets around Alpha Centauri.
Although there is no evidence that such a planet exists now, the possibility
excites astronomers like Ford who actually can imagine members of some future
generation traveling 4.3 light-years to explore their most beguiling
I think it's one of the most exciting programs I've ever undertaken, Ford
said. There's no assurance of success, but then we're finding that planets
are very common, even in totally unexpected environments. Although we have no
evidence now that there are planets there, if a Jupiter-mass planet is in the
right zone, we have a greater chance of finding it with this new technology.
Nature seems to be more clever in making planets than we had ever imagined
With an improved ability to look back in time, scientists hope to find more
answers to the puzzle of dark matter as the apparent controlling force in the
development of the universe. Such a basic question would help resolve
conflicting notions of how matter is distributed.
Present generations of astronomers, for example, have considered a variety of
possibilities: that the distribution is relatively uniform like raisins in a
cake; like a mass of soap bubbles with discreet walls of separation; like a
sponge, which has walls but also corridors of interconnection. The growing
realization that most matter is dark and of an unfamiliar kind directly
effects scientists understanding of physics at the origins of the universe.
As we look back further, Ford said, we want to see how the distribution of
matter develops. We know already that it drives the evolution of galaxies and
clusters, but we want to understand how dark matter promotes that evolution.
The new instrument will also outperform the largest ground-based telescopes
with an astronomical technique called lensing. Due to an especially propitious
property of nature, large collections of matter, such as clusters of galaxies,
can be so massive that they actually warp space in their vicinity. This
is especially valuable to the astronomer because light from more distant
galaxies that would otherwise be masked by the cluster suddenly appears
greatly magnified from Earth. These gravitational telescopes, as astronomers
call them, will greatly improve the task of mapping and measuring dark matter
distribution and distant galaxies in greater detail.
Although the science team includes researchers from California, Arizona,
Colorado and Goddard, most of its members work on Hopkins Homewood campus,
either in the school's department of physics and astronomy or at the Space
Telescope Science Institute, located across the street.
Besides supporting researchers, the NASA grant will be used to hire 10 to 12
post-doctoral scientists, who will work at Hopkins, and portions of it will
be used to pay graduate students and undergraduates who work on the project.
Everyone will be hired by Jan. 1, 2000, then we will have five years of
science after launch, Ford said. We can now go deeper, we can go wider, and
we'll have twice the resolution of the present camera. The gains are very
quantifiable. Other members of the team from Hopkins and the Space Telescope
Science Institute include: Robert Brown, Chris Burrows, Mark Clampin, Paul
Feldman, David Golimowski, George Hartig, Marc Postman, Marc Rafal, Bill
Sparks, Zlatan Tsvetanov, and Rick White. Randy Kimble and Ed Cheng, of
Goddard Space Flight Center, are also members of the Maryland team.
Bloomsburg Center for Physics and Astronomy
Space Telescope Science Institute
Goddard Space Flight Center
Ball Aerospace Corp.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration