Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Observatory hosting GSU’s CHARA Array named important site in astronomical history

The Mount Wilson Observatory, a historic observatory operated from Georgia State University and which hosts GSU’s Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA), has been listed by the International Astronomical Union and the International Council on Monuments and Sites as a potential “heritage site of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy.”

The Mount Wilson Observatory, founded in 1904, is located in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles and is where astronomers made revolutionary discoveries about the universe — including the realization that the Earth’s solar system is not at the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and that our galaxy is only one among countless others in a vast and expanding universe.

The observatory was listed in “Heritage Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the Context of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention: A Thematic Study.” The report from the IAU and the ICOMOS was produced as part of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.

The report was endorsed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, the world body which administers the UNESCO World Heritage Convention that protects sites that are important to the cultural heritage of the world.

While this is not a formal nomination of the observatory as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Wilson is the only observatory in the United States presented among many case studies from around the world as potentially meriting such a designation on the basis of its historic scientific accomplishments.

CHARA Director and Regents’ Professor Harold McAlister, who is also CEO of the non-profit Mount Wilson Institute that has offices on the Georgia State campus, said he is delighted with this recognition of Mount Wilson Observatory.

“This is testimony to the unique role Mount Wilson played during the first half of the 20th Century. Its wonderful telescopes and talented scientists reinvented astronomy and awoke humans to the almost unimaginable scale of the Universe in which we live,” McAlister said.

“Astronomers all over the world are still searching for answers to questions first posed from Mount Wilson,” he further explained. “I am proud that Georgia State is playing an important role in preserving this wonderful site.”

The observatory includes two “tower telescopes” for studying the sun and two night-time telescopes, a 60-inch telescope completed in 1908 that is considered the first truly modern telescope, and the famous 100-inch Hooker telescope used by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s to measure the expansion of the universe.

Harlow Shapley used the 60-inch telescope before World War I to prove our location in the “suburbs” of the Milky Way galaxy rather than at its center. The observatory’s founder, George Ellery Hale, used the 60-ft solar tower telescope to discover strong magnetic fields in the sun and to determine the true period of the so-called sunspot cycle.

More modern is Georgia State’s CHARA Array, an array of six telescopes that bring individual beams of light to synthesize a giant telescope hundreds of meters across through a process called interferometry.

The CHARA Array is the most powerful telescope of its kind in the world and has produced for the first time extremely high resolution images of normal-sized stars, stars in binary systems that are exchanging mass with one another and surface features on other stars. More recently, CHARA produced images of the mysterious dark eclipsing companion in the binary star system epsilon Aurigae, whose eclipse happens only every 27 years.

The CHARA Array was built with support from GSU, the National Science Foundation, the W.M. Keck Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. It was dedicated in 2000 and became fully operational in 2004. It is operational funding is provided by the Division of Astronomical Sciences of the National Science Foundation and by the College of Arts and Sciences of Georgia State University.

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