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UNT professor launches into project with prestigious Gemini Observatory

UNT professor launches into project with prestigious Gemini Observatory

UNT professor launches into project with prestigious Gemini Observatory
November 02
12:00 2018

At the top of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hilo, Hawaii, rests the Gemini North telescope.

With the range of visibility the north telescope and its sister telescope Gemini South provide, astronomers can practically view the entire night sky.

Here is where Dr. Ohad Shemmer, an associate professor of astronomy, will lead a group of 19 researchers in a mission to catalog 400 distant quasars over a three-year time period.

“These are very resource-intensive facilities,” Shemmer said. “Very prestigious and very expensive.”

Birth of a project

Dr. Ohad Shemmer, a staff astronomer at UNT, explains the illustration he made that depicts quasar redshift. Dr. Schemmer was awarded $408,633 from National Science Foundation to study quasars. Omar Gonzalez

Quasars are the brightest sources of energy in the universe. Thought to be instrumental in shaping galaxies, they form when “gas is funneled toward giant black holes at the center of galaxies,” according to the observatory’s website.

For Shemmer’s team, there are three goals for this project.

“We want to get accurate black hole mass estimates, fueling rates and distances,” Shemmer said.

Shemmer said there are a half a million quasars in the sky right now, and there will be millions more in the future. The information they gain from the 400 quasars his team will catalog will allow them to observe and analyze the rest.

In 2014, the Gemini Observatory began accepting proposals for observation projects using their telescopes. Shemmer’s project is one of only three programs approved in 2017.

With a $800,000 grant for the initial phase of data collection, Shemmer split the amount in half with his partner, Dr. Michael Brotherton from the University of Wyoming.

Leading up to the approval, Shemmer traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with program officers.

“[We kind of] had to advertise the project to them and try to ask for general tips on how to make the proposal successful because such proposals are so competitive, even with guaranteed time on big telescopes,” Shemmer said. “We were so lucky to get this funding — extremely lucky in getting this through.”

Shemmer said they had about a 1 in 6 chance of getting their project approved by the Gemini Observatory’s Large and Long program panel and a 1 in 5 chance of getting funding from the National Science Foundation.

This was their third year attempting and first time getting through. The project had already been stewing in Shemmer’s mind for quite some time. Any attempts from him to make it a reality, though, were always met with pessimism.

“Starting about 10 years ago, I was told, ‘This is too ambitious, it’s not going to get done,’” Shemmer said. “[People said], ‘It’s too ambitious, too complicated, too competitive. You’re never going to get so many quasars, so much time on a big telescope.’”

The change came when the Gemini Observatory launched its program and Shemmer realized he had the chance to make this idea possible. At a conference in Austin, Texas, Shemmer gathered a group of colleagues from other Gemini Observatory partnership countries and laid out a plan.

“It was born in Texas,” Shemmer said.

A new understanding of astronomy


Shemmer said the U.S. puts in about $20 million dollars a year into the two 8-meter telescopes in the Gemini observatories. An additional $50 million comes from six countries that fund them in partnership. These telescopes allow for some of the most detailed infrared spectroscopy of distant quasars, giving it the potential to open up new ideas.

In order to expand the potential impact it can have on astronomy and physics, Shemmer asked for their data to be available to the public immediately with no delays.

However, the project is not without its complications.

“So far, when we get data from the telescope, we have to work really hard to reduce the data to a form we can use to get good science on,” said Brandon Matthews, physics graduate student and Shemmer’s research assistant. “Our biggest issues have been the ins and outs of near-infrared spectroscopy reduction. In order to get from the raw data to a workable spectrum is a pretty arduous task.”

However, Matthews said Shemmer’s decades-long experience with similar projects provides them the experience necessary to get the answers.

The community

Ron Dilulio, the director of UNT’s astronomy laboratories, likened Shemmer’s work to that of a policeman’s.

“It’s like the policeman has the radar gun,” Dilulio said. “He can tell, ‘Oh, that car is going too fast!’ And that’s exactly what [Shemmer] will be doing — having a catalog where people can go and [see] some of the most exciting quasars and their speeds and being more accurate.”

Shemmer contacted Dilulio to help him get the public involved and knowledgeable about the project. Dilulio, in turn, came up with the idea for a “Color the Lights” initiative, which gets people with minimal experience in astronomy and physics to be “citizen astronomers.”

“My job as director of the program is to translate that complex science and to make it simple and something that people can understand and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s something interesting,’” Dilulio said.

Dilulio hopes from teaching regular people about astronomy, they can help contribute in the search for information on quasars.

“They can help develop information and perhaps be a part of a project where we still look at these quasars as we try to figure out what they were, how they work and how fast they’re moving away from us,” Dilulio said.

As for the importance this holds for UNT, Dilulio sums it up simply.

“This will be the first catalog of its kind,” Dilulio said. “Every time [people] see a reference to the catalog they’re going to see, just like with other catalogs, where they came from. This could be the UNT catalog of quasars. [It’s] something that’s going to be around longer than we will.”

Featured Image: Dr. Ohad Shemmer is the second Texan to be awarded large and long-term observation time in the Gemini Observatory. His observation time is estimated to come to a close in 2023. Omar Gonzalez

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Maritza Ramos

Maritza Ramos

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