Atop a Chilean mountain, undergraduate students make cutting-edge astronomical observations, UChicago News

May 28, 2024

Prof. Mike Gladders has taught the field course in astronomy and astrophysics since its inception in 2020. In his mind, the course is an opportunity to not only teach students about astronomy, but for them to make new contributions to the scientific literature while doing so.

In the first quarter of the course, the students learn about astrophysics as well as the telescopes and the types of measurements and calibrations that can be made. Then they search existing databases of the sky to try to find promising objects to look at more closely with the Magellan telescope.

In particular, they are searching for extremely distant galaxies that have been “lensed”—magnified like a fish through the fishbowl, thanks to the enormous power of gravity. The light from these far-away galaxies has been traversing the cosmos at the speed of light for billions of years, and so the students were looking back in time to the deep past, when both the universe, and the galaxies in it, were young. These galaxies are of interest to scientists because they provide clues about the physical processes that helped form and shape galaxies over cosmic time.

In the early days of the cosmos, the universe mostly consisted of dark clouds of hydrogen gas. Then, about 500 million years after the Big Bang, some intense form of radiation began ionizing the hydrogen, leading to the makeup of the universe that we know and love today. “This launches the development of complexity in the cosmos,” said Gladders. But very little is known about how this happened; finding these very early galaxies can offer clues to the processes at work.

Once the students have identified promising objects to take a closer look at with the telescopes, they travel to Chile over spring break to make those observations.

This past spring break, seven students were able to travel to the Magellan Observatory in Chile to use the telescopes for research.

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