Last year, Michael Skrutskie, a UVA astronomy professor, led a team of scientists that created and placed a thermal infrared camera into the core of the Large Binocular Telescope, located in Tucson, Ariz. The camera made the telescope the world's most powerful, with a clarity matching that of the famed Hubble Space Telescope, which can see several billion light years away from its orbit above earth. The camera has already produced game-changing science on how the universe behaves, and will play a central role in NASA's search for other planets that could support life. We talked to Skrutskie recently about the camera's future, as it peeks into the past.
Skrutskie: The LBT collects light from two large mirrors, then sends it through a series of instruments that correct for atmospheric disturbances. The light is then fed into our camera, which sees light at the infrared end of the spectrum, invisible to the human eye. The camera sits in what is basically a thermos, because it has to be kept very cold, 60 degrees above absolute zero, or about 350 degrees below Fahrenheit, to minimize its own infrared glow.
What has it seen?
It's looked at exoplanets—planets that circle a star other than our sun—to see how they cool down and age, and how their atmospheres work. The first observations conflicted with expectations, suggesting current models are inaccurate or at least incomplete. The instrument has also observed the leftovers of solar system formation around other stars—disks of debris originating from the collision of asteroids and comets characterizing cleanup of young solar systems.
What are your plans for the camera?
NASA is supporting our efforts to conduct the first extensive survey of around 100 nearby stars, [searching] for young, and thus hot, planets similar to Jupiter.
Why is that important?
To date we know of only one place in the galaxy where life originated and we have to ask the question of whether the structure of our solar system played a significant role in the development of, and survival of, life. If it did, then other similar solar systems are places to focus our efforts. Jupiter very well may have played a major role in the cleanup of the inner solar system as well as shepherding the population of asteroids away to minimize the potential for impacts on the Earth. Most of the other planetary systems discovered to date are unlike our own, with "Jupiters" much closer to their parent stars. But the discovery methods are biased to find those types of systems. The new LBT instrument provides, for the first time, the capability to look at a large sample of planets like Jupiter much farther out.