Galaxy Quests


By Kathy Svitil

Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

FLY US TO THE STARS Working with NASA and colleagues at other research institutions around the world, UCLA scientists study the universe, including the global star cluster.

Giant telescopes sweep the skies. An armada of unmanned spacecraft explores our solar system and the galaxies beyond, preparing for the day when humans themselves return to the Final Frontier. On almost every mission, UCLA scientists are working together and with colleagues around the world to unlock the secrets of the universe.

It wasn't the stars themselves that drew Mark Morris to watch the skies. It was, he says, "the vastness of the arena in which they reside" and "the unbelievable power of astronomical events."

Ben Zuckerman's dad used to take his little boy to the Hayden Planetarium in New York, where the youngster would stand on special scales to find out how much he would weigh on the Moon. At home, he was hypnotized by Flash Gordon on TV.

Brad Hansen was "one of those annoying kids who were always asking, 'Why?' " Andrea Ghez calls herself a "telescope junkie." Chris Russell Ph.D. '68 never dreamt of being an astronaut, but in 1964, he took a summer job analyzing data from a space mission and "never looked back."

This quintet is among a small army of UCLA astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmologists, planetary scientists, black-hole hunters, engineers and others working with NASA and colleagues around the world to unlock the mysteries of the universe. And there are plenty of secrets to uncover. Ancient stars nearly as old as the universe itself. Stellar nurseries where stars and planets are born. Brown dwarfs. Black holes. Exoplanets. Dark energy.

"UCLA has a rich history of producing cutting-edge research that further contributes to our understanding of our solar system and universe," says Ken Calvert of California's 44th Congressional District, who sits on the House's Science Committee and is the chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. There are, for example, about 40 current NASA missions looking beyond Earth, and UCLA is associated in some way with all of them. And that total doesn't even include the many projects with ground-based telescopes, where the university also plays a pivotal role.

While studying stellar nurseries — regions where stars and their planets are born — telescope junkie Ghez, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, made a surprising find: Nearly all stars have siblings. And her team took the first clear picture of the Milky Way a year ago. In 1998, Ghez discovered a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. Seven years later, UCLA researcher Michael Muno found out that the enormous structure has a mass 3 million times greater than our Sun and is surrounded by tens of thousands of small black holes.

In August, Hansen, now UCLA associate professor of physics and astronomy (and still apparently asking "Why?"), spotted the faintest stars ever seen — 12 billion years old and producing as much light as a birthday candle on the Moon as seen from Earth.