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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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How to become an astronomer

Topic: How to Become an Astronomer

Heidi Hammel:  I remember when I did this big, visible program in Baltimore called “The Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet Crash Into Jupiter.”  It was a big deal.  I was on the nightly news every night for a week.  And my local high school in Pennsylvania sent a TV crew down to Baltimore to interview me, and they asked me what was the most important class you took in high school to prepare you to become a world famous scientist?  And my answer was Chorus.  I had a great Chorus teacher, Sue Shayu [ph?], who was a former Rockette, and she demanded professionalism of her students.  And there we were in the chorus, just high school kids, but she made us warm up every time.  She told us how to stand, how to hold ourselves, you know, wear lipstick, girls, because the lights will wash you out.  She just gave us tips, and she expected us to be professionals.  No amateur night in Dixie.  And I took that lesson forward with me into whatever I was doing.  Whatever I was going into, whether it was going to be chorus or history or astronomy or whatever, do it right.  Be a professional.  Don’t just do a half baked job.  Do everything correctly.  Get down.  Learn the details of what you’re going to do.  That was by far the most important course for me, Chorus.  It also taught me communication skills, and for scientists nowadays, communication skills, whether they are writing skills or oral speaking skills, are incredibly important.  So when kids as me what classes do I need to take, I say, “Well, look.  You got to take math, because you got to learn the language.  And you also have to take communication classes, whether it’s an English class or your music classes, band classes to teach you how to cooperate in groups.”  You don’t focus on physics.  You make sure you broaden yourself and have a good solid background in many different things.  That’s what you need to be a good scientist.  The science teachers don’t like it when I say that.  They think you take chemistry, biology.  I’m like, yeah, you do need to do those things, but that can come later.  Your foundation has to be in basic communication and the basic language skills, and I include math as one of the language skills.

Question:  What should budding astronomers study?

Heidi Hammel: Astronomy and astrophysics is a very interesting field, because you can come out at it from many different angles.  When I was in college, I didn’t like physics a lot, and I really wasn’t very good at physics.  And there were a lot of people around me who were really good at physics, I mean, scary good at physics.  And they weren’t much help to me, because I would say, “How do you do this?”  They’d say, “Well, the answer’s obvious.”  And I would sit there going, “Hmm, hmm, not to me.”  So I chose not to major in physics.  A lot of astronomers and astrophysicists, has the word “physics” right in there, do major in physics.  I chose, instead, to major in earth and planetary science.  And so my background was in courses like geology, geophysics, atmospheric chemistry.  But, again, a lot of math courses and basic physics courses, things like Newtonian physics, all the way through quantum physics.  I did take those courses.  I wasn’t good at them, but I passed them.  I learned them enough to pass.  A C is a passing grade is what I learned in college, and something that I tell young people nowadays a lot.  C is a passing grade.  You don’t need straight A’s to be a scientist, despite what you may have heard.

 

 

 

Heidi Hammel says astronomers should be well-rounded especially in math, but no one looks for straight A’s.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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