STAR POWER: Texas A&M Playing Instrumental Role in Observational Astronomy
COLLEGE STATION —
When astronomer Darren DePoy came to Texas A&M University in 2008, he did so with an important global goal: to help establish Texas A&M as a worldwide leader in astronomical instrumentation.
Four years later, DePoy is living his dream, reveling in the results of a big-time gamble that involved leaving an established program he spent 18 years building at Ohio State University for the opportunity to do the same thing at Texas A&M — a former unknown commodity in astronomy circles now positioned as a major player in some of the world’s biggest projects, from the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX) in west Texas.
Multiple decades and myriad budget reductions removed from Neil Armstrong’s historic small step on the Moon, both the science community and the world at large increasingly rely on precision astronomical instrumentation to boldly go where no man has gone before in exploring the cosmos. Many of those in-demand devices are being developed and built within Texas A&M’s Charles R. ’62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory, thanks to DePoy’s proven excellence and a potent combination of ingenuity, expertise and can-do attitude that DePoy describes as uniquely Aggie.
DePoy would know a thing or two about Aggieland’s allure — an attraction that’s most definitely mutual. His 2008 hire marked nothing short of a coup for the university’s fledgling astronomy program, which just two years after scoring veteran astrophysicist Nicholas Suntzeff as its director took another giant leap by securing one of the nation’s most sought-after instrumentation experts.
Despite the obvious positives, DePoy admits even he initially worried about not having the necessary funding to hire outside research consultants with the technical knowledge and capabilities to help design as well as mass-produce the amount of lenses and other components required for the level of projects he planned to pursue. He has since filled that need with graduate and undergraduate students, not only from his home Department of Physics and Astronomy but also from those of aerospace and mechanical engineering, further showcasing the collaborative, interdisciplinary nature of research at Texas A&M and spotlighting a distinctive competency exclusive to the university, courtesy of its combined strengths in traditional and emerging areas.
“We are fortunate at Texas A&M to have both the excellent students and staff as well as the high-quality lab space required to build such precision instrumentation,” said DePoy, who holds the Rachal-Mitchell-Heep Endowed Professorship within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy. “Our team includes undergraduate and graduate students from several science and engineering departments and research scientists and engineers in the instrumentation group. All of us are excited to be part of what the future holds for Texas A&M Astronomy.”
Those bright prospects hinge on some of the largest and most technically challenging instrumentation ever built, including one prominent example right here in Texas. As part of an $8 million National Science Foundation grant, DePoy and his team are constructing key components of the world’s premier spectrograph, the Visible Integral-field Replicable Unit Spectrograph (VIRUS). When complete, it will form the backbone of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), one of the first international experiments to probe and understand dark energy, the dominant and unexplained force that is causing the universe to expand at an increasing rate as it ages. Texas A&M is a partner in the $36 million project initiated in 2002 by the University of Texas at Austin that also involves Penn State University as well as several international members.
The first-of-its-kind, $16 million VIRUS instrument is being assembled and aligned within the Munnerlyn Lab, where DePoy is spearheading the challenging construction of no fewer than 150 individual VIRUS units — each an identical copy of a single spectrograph — as well as the assembly and testing of the overall instrument along with Dr. Jennifer Marshall, research scientist in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The instrument will be mounted to the sides of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, located at the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of west Texas, and used to help produce the largest three-dimensional map of the universe to learn more about dark energy and the universe’s precise geometry.
“In astronomy, typically what we do is build one instrument and put it on the back of a telescope to use, sometimes for many years,” DePoy said. “This project is different because we are not building one; it is what is, in effect, hundreds of the same thing.”
DePoy also is one of hundreds of researchers involved in the United States Department of Energy-funded Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration, a group that spans three continents and the gamut of science, engineering and technology in the search for answers as to why the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Earlier this month, he was in Chile to witness the first pictures of the southern sky taken by the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam), for which he serves as the project scientist. One of its key sub-components — a spectrophotometric calibration system known as DECal that will allow the camera to obtain very high precision brightness measurements of the objects it sees in the sky — was built in the Munnerlyn Lab.
“The project to design, build, test and deploy the DECam has taken many years, and it was exciting to see the instrument take pictures of the sky,” DePoy said. “I was present in the telescope control room while the first images were obtained. The instrument had been installed on the telescope only a short time before, and it produced science-quality images very quickly. This is a testament to the hard work, expertise and enthusiasm of the large group of scientists, engineers and technicians who worked on the telescope and instrument over the past many years, including many Munnerlyn Lab members.”
In late summer, DePoy received word that the lab was selected to proceed with building one of the first-light instruments for the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope, to be constructed in Chile by 2019. Their proposed custom-designed spectrograph, known as GMACS, will take advantage of the GMT’s unprecedented light-gathering capability to observe the faintest possible targets — those substantially fainter than the sky — while bringing in roughly $20 million in research revenue for the lab during the next decade.
“We are all very excited about building this crucial instrument for the GMT,” DePoy said. “The combination of the enormous telescope, which has mirrors roughly one-third the length of a football field across, and the sensitive spectrograph built here at Texas A&M will allow unprecedented measurement of the most distant objects in the known universe. The science potential is awesome, and the opportunities for our students will be extraordinary.”
Global contributions to cosmologically groundbreaking construction aside, DePoy and Marshall are equally proud of another of their lab’s most instrumental products — future astronomers with unparalleled instrumentation expertise. In addition to a strong undergraduate poster-presentation showing at the 2012 American Astronomical Society meeting last January, the Munnerlyn Lab celebrated its first graduates in May, including two students who currently are pursuing graduate studies in instrumentation. Several additional students have gone onto jobs using the skills they learned in the lab, such as oil pipeline work (vacuum and cryogenic systems), aerospace-related expertise (image processing software) and technical writing. Finally, during a Friday (Sept. 28) afternoon ceremony in Rudder Auditorium, current lab member and senior aerospace engineering major Emily Boster will be recognized as a 2012 Astronaut Foundation Scholar by a living NASA legend, Captain James Lovell. (See the recap story in the Bryan-College Station Eagle.)
“Future telescopes like the GMT will require even larger and more complicated instrumentation than the telescopes we use today,” Marshall said. “It is very important that we start to train young astronomers, physicists and engineers in the techniques of astronomical instrumentation now so that the next generation of observational astronomers will be able to use the state-of-the-art instrumentation which is being designed for telescopes like the GMT in places like the Munnerlyn Lab.”
Click here to learn more about the Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and related research projects.
For more information on Texas A&M Astronomy, go to http://astronomy.tamu.edu/.
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About 12 Impacts for 2012: 12 Impacts for 2012 is an ongoing series throughout 2012 highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional examples, visit http://12thman.tamu.edu/.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or email@example.com; Dr. Darren DePoy, (979) 862-2082 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Dr. Jennifer Marshall, (979) 862-2782 or email@example.com
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