Dark Energy And The Expansion Of The Universe: New McDonald Observatory Director Leads Experiment For Answers

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The new director of one of the nation’s leading astronomy research centers is quarterbacking a project that will significantly expand our understanding of the evolution of the universe.

In a broadcast recorded live at the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas, Fronteras Desk reporter Lorne Matalon and West Texas Public Radio/Marfa Public Radio Morning Edition anchor Travis Bubenik spoke with Dr. Taft Armandroff, the recently appointed director of the observatory.

Taft Armandroff, recently appointed as new director of the McDonald Observatory in Texas, has studied both astronomy and philosophy. He says both play a role in his research. (Lorne Matalon)

Taft Armandroff, recently appointed as new director of the McDonald Observatory in Texas, has studied both astronomy and philosophy. He says both play a role in his research. (Lorne Matalon)

The three met at the observatory’s 82-inch Otto Struve Telescope, a historic instrument that nonetheless remains on the front line of modern day astronomical research.

The Struve Telescope, named for a Russian astronomer who was the observatory’s first director, was the second largest in the world when it was dedicated in 1939. Armandroff brings impressive credentials to his new position. He comes to the McDonald Observatory from Hawaii, where he was director of the Keck Observatory, situated on the summit of Mauna Kea.

The Milky Way shines above the dome of the Chow Telescope at McDonald Observatory. (Frank Cianciolo, McDonald Observatory)

The Milky Way shines above the dome of the Chow Telescope at McDonald Observatory.
(Frank Cianciolo, McDonald Observatory)

He succeeds David Lambert, the observatory’s third director. Lambert will return to his position as a full-time faculty member at UT Austin’s Department of Astronomy. Prior to joining Keck Observatory in Hawaii in 2006, Armandorff worked for 19 years at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. Armandroff graduated in 1982 from Wesleyan University, with a B.A. in Astronomy. He went on to Yale University, where he earned two masters degrees and a Ph.D. in astronomy. He is a research astronomer who specializes in dwarf galaxies, stellar populations in our and nearby galaxies, and globular clusters, knowledge of which is key to understanding the evolution of the Universe.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is surrounded by star trails centered on Polaris, the North Star (Frank Cianciolo, McDonald Observatory)

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is surrounded by star trails centered on Polaris, the North Star.
(Frank Cianciolo, McDonald Observatory)

In a wide-ranging discussion, Armandroff talked about the intersection of two of his passions, science and philosophy, and how the two have melded in his professional and personal life. On the science side, Armandroff is excited about the upgrade to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest telescopes, now being fitted to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. Dark energy is the term used to explain why the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing. The experiment will take on one of the universe’s biggest mysteries by compiling a three-dimensional map of the early cosmos. The hope is the survey will help inform astronomers about the nature of dark energy, a mysterious agent thought to constitute nearly three-quarters of the universe’s mass. On the philosophy side, Armandroff said he has been profoundly touched by the lessons in abject humility that astronomy affords about humankind’s place in the cosmos.

A partial solar eclipse in 2012 seen from the McDonald Observatory near Ft. Davis, Texas (Rachel Walker)

A partial solar eclipse in 2012 seen from the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas.
(Rachel Walker)

Armandroff was reminded of a recent comment by his colleague, Bill Wren. Referring to the threat to the observatory’s legendary ink black night sky, Wren said:

“I think the consequences for losing touch with the starry sky are beyond what we can imagine at this point in time….What if Van Gogh were alive today? Would he be inspired to paint “Starry Night” again? I mean, could he even see the Milky Way from Saint Rémy in France? And the answer is no, he couldn’t. It’s light polluted.”

Armandroff said that the emitters of unwelcome light are centered in the oil and gas fields of the Permian Basin of West Texas. But he said ongoing dialogue between Wren and oil and gas companies is going well, and that he is confident the issue can be contained if not eliminated.

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