Two University of Texas astronomers have figured out a way to beat the dawn.
In the first coordinated effort of its kind, Donald E. Winget and R. Edward Nather used eight telescopes, strategically located around the world, to race ahead of encroaching daylight and obtain valuable data on a pair of "white-dwarf" stars.In effect, the eight instruments became one, which Winget and Nather call a "whole-Earth" telescope. Aided by good weather and meticulous planning they collected four complete days of data on the stars. The research was supported by the National Geographic Society.
Previous international astronomical observations have been conducted, but they have been more piecemeal and less coordinated than this one, Nather says.
"Nobody's actually run the show as a single telescope before," he explains. "It was just `send in whatever you get.' And it was that kind of thing that convinced us we could actually think of this thing as a new kind of telescope and run it that way."
The astronomers admit their first attempt to follow the white dwarfs westward with the darkness didn't quite succeed.
"There are some gaps in the data but we came pretty close," says Nather. "We came closer than anybody else has done and we're planning to do it again in November, when I think we can do better."
White dwarfs are the slowly cooling remnants of stars that have collapsed after burning all their fuel. "What we're doing is stellar archaeology," Nather says. "The history of our galaxy and the details of star formation in the early universe lie hidden within the white dwarfs."
Winget and Nather coordinated their March tracking project by telephone from a control center in Austin, Texas. Participating observatories were in Texas, Arizona, Hawaii, Australia, South Africa, France, Brazil and Chile.
As the stars set for one observatory, they rose for the next one west, where they were observed by an international team of astronomers and graduate students painstakingly assembled by the Texans.
The scientists have to work around political obstacles. "Customs officials around the world are very reserved about letting in hi-tech equipment they don't understand," says Winget."We have spent far more time on problems of this nature than on the design and development of the equipment we carry."