12 June 2009

Young stars in Finnish summer night

In Finland a team of Nordic and Baltic astronomi students prepare to work with the future gigantic radio- and optic telescopes in the exploration of the Universe.

The Nordic Optical Telescope  
The Nordic Optical Telescope getting ready for work at night
at the top of the island og La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain.

What does a bright Finnish summer night among the birch trees, a beach in Sweden, and a Spanish volcano have to do with newborn stars and planets? ”A lot”, say students at a NordForsk sponsored Research Training Course at Tuorla Observatory, Turku University, Finland.

With the excellent facilities at the observatory, they are using the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) on La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain, and a radio telescope at Onsala Space Observatory, Sweden. Combining visible and infrared light with radio waves allows them to peer deep into dark dust clouds in the Universe where stars and planets are born right now.

Last night, excitement ran especially high: A radio signal had indicated that a young high-mass star in the nearby galaxy Messier 82 might have exploded as a supernova – the type of explosion that made Tycho Brahe famous in 1572. The students observed Messier 82 in infrared light, which would reveal an explosion even behind the thick dust clouds in the galaxy. Alas – no new star was seen, so the radio signal was due to some other phenomenon. But exciting it was!

Friendships and future collaborations
The course still gives these young scientists experience in a truly active field of research and prepares them for a future when a vast array of front-line European telescopes at all wavelengths will be available for their research.

It also helps to forge the friendships and future collaborations that will be needed to secure the Nordic scientific returns from the future billion-Euro investments in European astronomy – a strategy supported by NordForsk.

Interest in the two-week course was huge: The 21 Nordic and Baltic PhD students observing from Tuorla these nights were selected from over 60 applicants from all over the world. “A very difficult choice”, says NOT Director Johannes Andersen. Still, no less than 12 nationalities are represented in the group.

Students and teacher following the NOT control screens
Students and teachers rivited to the
NOT telescope control screens at
Tuorla Observatory.

In addition to the night-time observations, the school features daytime lectures by leading Nordic and international experts on star formation in the Milky Way and other galaxies. Observing techniques for optical, near-infrared and radio astronomy are included as well, so students in the five project groups are well prepared to do real science – during the school and afterwards. And interest is keen, with activity around the clock, leaving students excited, tired, and happy at the end of the ‘day’. And they still have another week to go…