TAEM interview with Dr. Constance Walker of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson

Dr. Constance E Walker of NOAO

Dr. Constance E Walker of NOAO

TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine is always expanding to provide stories and educational tools to all the college students who follow us. Our Science section has provided excellent educational references and informative interviews of college professors from around the world. We have also posted interviews from some very well known scientists to add to our educational information.

  We have recently had an interview with the director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at the Green Bank’s site in West Virginia, Dr. Karen O’Neil. The information gleamed from this was not only an educational tool for students, but for teachers and scientists as well. For that purpose we would now like to turn our attention to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak near Tucson Arizona.

   Dr. Constance E. Walker, from NOAO, was just the person that we needed to talk to. Dr. Walker is not only an astronomer but she is the driving force behind many light pollution education effort nationally and internationally, including the GLOBE at Night citizen science program. Dr. Walker, in order to bring out the importance of education for the field of astronomy, please tell our student readers of your own formal education.

CW- Hi! Nice to meet you. I hold bachelor’s in physics and astronomy from Smith College, a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Massachusetts, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Arizona.

Kitt Peak ObservatoryTAEM- What influenced your desire to study the field of Astronomy?

CW- This will tell my age, but I was in first grade when a person first landed on the Moon. No one had ever seen the Earth from space before. Just the idea of standing on a different planetoid looking back at our planet intrigued me to start asking questions about astronomy. I don’t think I have ever stopped asking them.

TAEM- Please tell us about some of the posts that you held in the educational aspect of your career.

CW- I have had two posts with respect to the educational aspect of my career: one at Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona where as part of the astronomy department I was in charge of the labs, training lab assistants to teach the labs and taking care of the lab resources and teaching materials. The second post started in 2001 at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory “EPO” department (Education and Public Outreach). For the observatory, I was instrumental in the development of 6 optics education modules (kits and guides) called Hands-on-Optics and oversaw the solar research program for the Teacher Leaders in Research-Based Astronomy program. I also directed Project ASTRO and Family ASTRO in Arizona for 5 years. This led to the development of ASTRO-Chile with our sister observatory in Chile, which I managed. Under ASTRO-Chile, the dark skies awareness citizen-science program, GLOBE at Night, started as a joint light pollution study between students and teachers in Chile and Spanish-speaking students and teachers in Tucson. GLOBE at Night, which I am fortunate to direct, is now a worldwide campaign in its 8th year. GLOBE at Night was a centerpiece of the “International Year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009” Dark Skies Awareness (DSA) cornerstone project. I chaired both the national and international working groups for the IYA DSA cornerstone project.

TAEM- Please inform our student readers about the many awards and recognitions that you received from your field of education.

CW- As part of the national and international DSA working groups for IYA2009, we were awarded the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Executive Directors Award for our efforts in 2009. In 2011, I was awarded the IDA Hoag-Robinson Award for my contribution to educating the public on light pollution, its effect and solutions. I now chair the IDA education committee and am an officer on its Board of Directors as well as an officer on the International Astronomical Union commission on light pollution. I also chair the Dark Skies Awareness programs for the Global Astronomy Month, which extends the legacy of IYA2009.

The National ObservatoryTAEM- Prior to your present position at NOAO, tell our readers some of the important professional positions that you held.

CW- Before entering the doctoral program in astronomy, I worked in industry as an antenna systems engineer at TRW Aerospace in Redondo Beach, CA. While in the doctoral program, I was a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program Fellow and used ground and space-based observations to probe star formation in nearby galaxies.  After completing the doctoral program, I was a postdoctoral research fellow for McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas in Austin, studying the molecular content of starburst galaxies at different epochs. Then I returned to the University of Arizona as an assistant staff astronomer and lecturer at Steward Observatory.  Through my classroom experience I found that the dimensions to teaching and learning were multifaceted and required students to have hands-on, minds-on opportunities for critical thinking. Within a couple of years, I was hired by the Education and Public Outreach group at NOAO to work on astronomy outreach and other programs.

NOAO logoTAEM- Please give us the history of the founding of the astronomical observatories at Kitt Peak, in Arizona that are run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

CW- Kitt Peak was selected in 1958 as the site for a national observatory after a 3-year survey that included more than 150 mountain ranges across the U.S. It was our country’s first national observatory. Today Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is home to one of the world’s largest collection of telescopes. The observatories on Kitt Peak are supported by the National Science Foundation. In 1957, the NSF entered into contract with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for the operation of Kitt Peak as a national center for optical astronomy. In 1982 the National Optical Astronomy Observatories was formed, consolidating management of the three national ground-based optical observatories which are Kitt Peak National Observatory, the National Solar Observatory with facilities at Kitt Peak and Sacramento Peak, New Mexico, and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Headquarters for NOAO are in Tucson, Arizona. Now it is known as the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, comprised of Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Kitt Peak, located in the Quinlan Mountains of the Sonoran Desert, comprises 200 acres of the nearly 3 million acre Tohono O’odham Nation. This land is leased by NOAO from the Tohono O’odham under a perpetual agreement that is valid for as long as scientific research facilities are maintained at the site.

For a good rendition of the history of the founding of our national observatory, see http://www.noao.edu/outreach/kptour/kpno_hist.html.

Solar ObservatoryTAEM- What are the astronomical instruments used at the NOAO site at Kitt Peak, and what are their importance ?

CW- The astronomical instruments used at Kitt Peak National Observatory and their importance are very well explained at http://www.noao.edu/outreach/kptour/kpvt.html. This set of webpages offers a virtual tour of NOAO-related telescope on Kitt Peak.

Kitt Peak has twenty-five optical and two radio telescopes and offers about 500 astronomers per year some of the finest observing in the world.

Kitt Peak National Observatory operates the Mayall 4-meter, the 2.1-meter, and Coudé Feed, and the 0.9-meter. NOAO currently operates the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on behalf of the WIYN Consortium, comprised of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University and NOAO.

The National Solar Observatory facilities on Kitt Peak include the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the world’s largest solar telescope.

Other institutions lease space for the operation of telescopes on Kitt Peak from the National Science Foundation, including the University of Arizona, Case Western University, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the MDM Observatory (University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, Ohio State University, and Columbia University), and the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA).

Obervertory scopeTAEM- Please tell us about the research that is done there, and the importance for the exploration of the universe that they entail.

CW- The Mayall Telescope is used primarily for infrared and faint visible light observations and has played an important role in many fields of research. The rotation curves of distant galaxies have been observed in order to determine the role of dark matter in the universe. Also, the 4-meter has helped to establish the dynamical structure of elliptical galaxies such as M87 and M49.

The WIYN telescope is one of the best imaging telescopes in the world. At least one supernova has been observed in this galaxy. The WIYN telescope is credited with important work in researching supernovae in distant galaxies, in understanding the origin of gamma ray bursts, and in the evolution of stars in clusters.

The McMath-Pierce is used to study the structure of sunspots, as well as sunspot spectra. A sunspot is a temporary cool region in the sun’s photosphere. A typical sunspot appears dark and irregularly shaped. Important discoveries revealed with this telescope include: a detection of water and isotopic helium in the sun; solar emission lines at 12 microns; first measurement of Kilogauss magnetic fields outside sunspots and the very weak intra-network fields; first high resolution images at 1.6 and 10 microns; detection of a natural maser in the Martian atmosphere.

Large Observatory telescopeLong-term studies over several decades of the Sun using SOLIS will provide data fundamental to understanding the solar activity cycle, sudden energy releases in the solar atmosphere, and solar irradiance changes and their relationship to global change.

The Coudé Feed at the 2.1-meter telescope has contributed to astronomical research in its application of spectroscopy of stars including spectral classification, stellar abundances, radial velocity curves of binary and variable stars, and spectrophotometric studies of variable stars.

The scientific contributions of the 0.9-Meter Telescope are numerous. The telescope has been used to investigate an extensive network of photometric standard stars as well as in stellar photometry of variable stars and of stars in clusters. The 0.9-meter participated in studies of the morphology of a wide variety of extended sources including planetary nebula, H II regions, and galaxies. Also, the facility has contributed to imaging surveys including clusters of galaxies, samples of rare objects such as emission-line galaxies or dwarf C stars, large-scale structure, and the Galactic halo.

TAEM- Tell us about the many discoveries that the observatory has made, and of the future plans and projects that are being considered for it.

CW- The achievements at Kitt Peak National Observatory are indeed noteworthy.

Study of spiral galaxy rotation curves provided the first indication of dark matter in the universe. Dark matter may dominate over ordinary matter in regulating the dynamics of galaxies and the entire universe.

By using radio emission as a selection criterion, some of the highest redshift galaxies have been discovered. The systematic study of these galaxies, with redshifts greater than 5 and dating back to very early epochs, has resulted in a new understanding of the rate of galaxy formation.

Observations of galaxy clusters indicate that the environment of a galaxy plays a strong role in its evolution. For example, the local density of galaxies can have an impact upon star formation and stellar populations in those galaxies.

Kitt Peak welcome signThe discovery of a void in the constellation Boötes lead to an early indication of the large scale structure of the universe. Later research programs established that very large scale structures in the universe are probably not in equilibrium, causing major revisions in cosmological models.

Supernovae have produced significant results as distance indicators. Planetary nebulae have also proven to be an effective tool for measuring distances in the universe. These differing techniques are helping to determine the Hubble constant, a measure of the rate at which the universe is expanding.

Research has provided a more detailed understanding of the evolution of protostars and protoplanetary disks, an early step in star formation. Accompanying the formation of young stars are complex and frequently very large bipolar outflows.

However, the most recent news from the NOAO family of telescopes is that the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was won by three astronomers who used the Blanco 4m telescope at CTIO (known also as NOAO-South). They won the prize for discovering that the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. Saul Perlmutter (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) led the Supernova Cosmology Project while Brian Schmidt (Australian National University) and Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins/Space Telescope Science Institute) were leading members of the High-z Supernova Search team. Present (Chris Smith) and past (Mark Phillips, Nick Suntzeff, Mario Hamuy, Bob Schommer) CTIO staff members were also members of the High-z team. Both teams announced their results in 1998. This unexpected finding led to the idea that the acceleration is driven by the mysterious dark energy and that the Universe we see (e.g. stars) are a very minor component.

TAEM- The National Science Foundation offers grants for research and public educational outreach. How does one get involved with this and who can be eligible to receive grants from the NSF?

CW- There are a number of research grants in astronomy as well as formal and informal science education (e.g., education and public outreach) offered at the NSF on a competitive proposal basis. For the latest information, see the www.nsf.gov website.

GLOBE at NightTAEM- Who can visit the site and what access do researchers have to use it for?

CW- Kitt Peak is open to the public daily from 9 AM to 4 PM, except Thanksgiving Day, December 24 and 25, and January 1. The hours of operation for the Kitt Peak Visitor Center are 9 AM to 3:45 PM. There is a suggested donation of a couple of dollars per person to the Visitor Center.

Kitt Peak offers visitors daily guided tours led by qualified docents at 10 AM, 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. You may conduct your own self-guided tour anytime between the regular business hours of 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. There are three major telescopes available for visitation: the 4-Meter Mayall, the 2.1-Meter, and the largest solar telescope in the world, the McMath-Pierce, each with a viewing gallery from which you can see the telescope. Group tours and school tours are available with advance reservations by calling (520) 318-8732.

Kitt Peak also offers two night-time viewing programs for the public: the general three hour evening observing program and the more advanced all night observing program. Both are by reservation only. These two programs sell out nearly every night. Call for reservations at least three weeks in advance for the general program, and at least one month in advance if you are interested in the more advanced, all night program. Call (520) 318-8726 between the hours of 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM.

Observing time to do research on NOAO telescopes is awarded to visiting and staff astronomers twice a year for the nighttime telescopes, and quarterly for the solar telescopes. Observing proposals from these astronomers are submitted to a committee of scientists and time is awarded to them on the basis of the observing proposal’s merit. NOAO staff astronomers carry out individual programs of research and participate in the development and testing of new instruments and the maintenance and improvements of existing telescopes.

TAEM- How can students and researchers contact your site for these purposes?

CW- Every summer, NOAO offers 6 Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) positions June through mid-August. Our Education and Public Outreach department usually mentors 2 of the students. Around January, college students interested in this can contact the NOAO REU director Dr. Ken Mighell at kmighell@noao.edu.

For observing opportunities for research astronomers, please visit http://ast.noao.edu/observing/proposal-info.

TAEM- Connie, it has been an honor to be able to have this interview with you for our publication. I am sure that many of our student readers, as well as the many educational professionals, who follow us as a learning tool towards their educations will be greatly informed by all that we have discussed in it. We want to thank you for your time and hope that you will keep in contact about any new findings and projects that the NOAO site has in the future.