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SLU scholars search cosmos

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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CANTON — From a lab at St. Lawrence University, two professors and a student are operating the world's largest single-dish radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.


The team will log into the telescope's controlling computers three times this month. The first of the three sessions, held late Friday night, went well after a few minor program glitches were worked out, said physics professor Aileen A. O'Donoghue.


The three observation nights are part of a seven-year project headed by Cornell University, which operates the Arecibo Observatory.


"The specific goal this project is looking for is to see dark galaxies that don't have a lot of stars," SLU junior Heather L. Cutler said. "There's a lot of mass in them that isn't really accounted for, and having mass accounted for is a good thing, because it holds our galaxy together."


The team will take over the controls again on Friday for six hours and its final session will be on Feb. 24 for another six hours.


Cornell's project began in 2005 with a survey of the night sky for faint radio signals emitted by hydrogen clouds in the cosmos. The researchers expect to find thousands of galaxies to distances of 750 million light years, according to the university's website.


The radio telescope, which is the size of 26 football fields, is necessary because the galaxies the project is looking for do not emit enough light to be picked up by an ocular scope.


The St. Lawrence team members have each made at least two trips to the telescope in Puerto Rico to learn how to operate it. Their last trip was during the university's winter break.


"We've gained enough experience and expertise that they trust us with their instrument," physics professor Aileen A. O'Donoghue said. "They have 4,000 hours of observation time, so they want other people to help."


Ms. O'Donoghue has been to the telescope four times and got St. Lawrence involved through her contacts with scientists at Cornell.


During their time monitoring the telescope, team members were mostly watching several computer monitors to make sure that the telescope was operating correctly. Since the project is looking to find as many dark galaxies as possible, they do not point the telescope anywhere, but simply let the sky drift by, Ms. O'Donoghue said.


Watching computer screens for hours on end can get boring; the screens are little more than complicated-looking charts full of numbers.


"Most of what we see is just to make sure the instruments are working correctly," Jeffrey R. Miller, an astronomer at the university, said. "The thing is, it's hard to sleep. You're all revved up. Even though looking at computer screens is boring, you're all revved up, hoping nothing goes wrong."


Once the survey hours are complete, it will be several more years before the information can be analyzed. St. Lawrence University will be involved in that process as well and will receive a "cube" of data, or a small section of night sky stretching from just outside our galaxy to hundreds of millions of light years away, to scour for dark galaxies and as-yet-unknown mass, Ms. O'Donoghue said.


"The mass in the universe will determine the size and the age," she said. "It's basically asking, what are the galaxies doing? What is the nature of the universe and where do we fit in? Mainly, it's cool stuff."

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