Infrared Vision: Skrutskie's Instruments Give Telescopes Special Powers

June 27, 2007 -- Astronomer Mike Skrutskie can neither leap tall buildings nor fly through space, but he does have the ability to observe the expanses of the universe in unusual detail. Skrutskie specializes in designing and building infrared cameras and spectrographs, devices that are able to penetrate cosmic haze and detect and measure heat radiation coming from stars and other distant bodies.

Instruments from his lab have been attached — or soon will be — to some of the world's best telescopes, such as the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, and to some that are much smaller, such as the 31-inch telescope at U.Va.'s Fan Mountain Observatory. Skrutskie's instruments make some of the best telescopes better and bring new vision to old telescopes that would otherwise be outdated.

Skrutskie's highly respected instrument design program attracts an array of shining graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and even undergraduates who enjoy building complex machines for direct use in innovative astronomy.

Only a fraction of the objects in the universe can be observed in visible light. But much more comes into view when astronomers use instruments that allow observations in the infrared, radio and x-ray regions of the spectrum. Infrared cameras (which observe light at wavelengths longer than visible light) allow them to look through inter-stellar dust to see the earliest stages of the birth of stars and planets. Ultimately large planets in other solar systems will be revealed in the infrared.

"These capabilities effectively extend the reach of our senses," Skrutskie says. "Our eyes are opened, and we see a much richer universe as a result."

Recently the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) awarded Skrutskie its prestigious James Craig Watson Medal for his leadership of a major project that surveyed the entire sky in the infrared. The project delivered a vast database of more than a billion stars and galaxies that provides a fundamental research tool for astronomers worldwide. Presented by NAS since 1887, the medal is awarded every three years for major contributions to astronomy. It comes with a $25,000 prize, plus $25,000 to support continuing research.

And Skrutskie's work certainly is continuing. His laboratory has three major projects in various phases of planning and construction. An infrared spectrograph soon will be attached to the 3.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. U.Va. is trading that spectrograph for membership in the Astronomical Research Consortium, a group of universities conducting astronomical research at Apache Point.

Because there is a finite number of telescopes in the world but a nearly infinite number of stars to study, astronomers must write research proposals and compete for severely limited observing time on all but the most minor of telescopes. One way to earn observing time on the best telescopes is to provide either money or innovative instrumentation.

Skrutskie and his colleagues also are designing a highly specialized spectrograph for the 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point, one that will allow the detailed observation of up to 300 stars at a time. Ultimately this instrument will observe the chemical fingerprints, and thus the ancestry, of nearly a million stars, bringing to sharp light the history of the assembly of our Milky Way galaxy.

And Skrutskie and Co. currently are building a small infrared camera that works at the combined focus of the two 8.4-meter mirrors of the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

"This instrument will permit exquisite resolution of distant objects," Skrutskie says. "We may become the first group to directly image large planets orbiting other stars."

That's about as close to space travel as an Earth-bound astronomer can get.