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UH Hilo astronomer gets time on Hubble Space Telescope

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Date: Friday, April 15, 2005
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

Dr. Michael West, professor of astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo , has been approved for coveted viewing time with the Hubble Space Telescope for a study titled “Archaeology of Fossil Galaxy Groups.” West has been principal investigator on six Hubble projects in the past seven years, more than any other astronomer in the State of Hawai‘i during that period.

“I’m delighted to be given access to Hubble’s sharp vision again,” said West. This year there were 485 requests from astronomers to use Hubble, however, only about 20 percent of them were granted time. West leads a team of five astronomers from the U.S., Canada and Australia that will receive nearly 10 hours of viewing time with Hubble as it orbits 300 miles above the Earth. He will also receive a monetary grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Hubble’s administrator.

West’s research will focus on three giant galaxies that are believed to have “cannibalized” — essentially annexed through gravitational force — their smaller galactic neighbors.

“Galaxies are a gregarious bunch,” said West. “You usually find them near other galaxies. What makes these three big galaxies that we’re studying with Hubble so unusual is that they are very isolated. We think they probably got that way by devouring galaxies around them over billions of years until there was none left. But we don’t know for sure.”

The astronomers hope to unravel the mystery of these “fossil galaxy groups” by studying hundreds of compact star clusters that swarm around them like bees around a hive. “These star clusters typically have as many as a million stars in them,” West elaborated. “They’re very dense, and held together tightly by gravity. Even if their parent galaxy gets consumed by a larger one, these star clusters survive. So they provide a record of how many galaxies and what kinds of galaxies were cannibalized. Just as archaeologists are able to piece together a picture of human history from relics that they find today, we hope to use the star clusters we see in these galaxies today to reconstruct their pasts.”

The galaxies under examination are: NGC 6482, 80 million light years from Earth; NGC 1132, 326 million light years from Earth; and ESO 3060170, 490 million light years from Earth. Viewed from such enormous distances, the star clusters surrounding these galaxies are nearly a billion times fainter than the human eye can see, which pushes even the Hubble Space Telescope to the limits of its capabilities.

“It’s challenging, but exciting work,” said West. “This is the first time that these extreme galaxies have ever been studied in detail, so we're looking forward to learning
something new.”

Additional information about the Hubble Space Telescope can be found at http://www.stsci.edu/hst/. Additional information about the UH Hilo Astronomy program can be found at http://www.astro.uhh.hawaii.edu/.


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