Stocker AstroScience Center opens new space frontier for students, community

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Posted by Ayleen Barbel Fattal

Ever since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon almost 46 years ago, our knowledge of the universe has changed dramatically.

More than 1,000 planets have been discovered orbiting distant stars. Black holes are now known to be present at the center of most galaxies, including the Milky Way. Most of the universe’s matter is dark and invisible.

Yet, the fundamental questions remain.

What is out there? How big is the universe? Are we alone?

The excitement in these questions, and the fact they have gone unanswered for centuries, is what drives FIU’s astrophysicists. And now, for the first time in FIU’s history, these researchers have a permanent home on campus for observing beyond Earth’s sky. In 2014, FIU opened the Stocker AstroScience Center, a fully equipped, modern observatory and research center with a 24-inch research-grade telescope, the only one of its kind in South Florida.

The facility, whose construction has been a 20-year endeavor for physics professor James Webb, was made possible by a gift from retired educator Carl Stocker. The four-story building features classrooms and research labs, along with its signature silver dome housing the main telescope. To operate that telescope, as well as partner telescopes in New Mexico, Chile and the Canary Islands, the Stocker AstroScience Center features a control room that is inspired as much by Hollywood as NASA. Its design might remind fans of the bridge on the popular TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

It should come as no surprise that Webb is a fan of “Star Trek.” But that’s not where his fascination with space began. His passion is rooted in a childhood memory of seeing Saturn for the first time. Then, he was using a cheap telescope he bought at Kmart with money earned mowing lawns. Today, in addition to the international array of telescopes at his fingertips, the main viewer in Stocker is capable of observing the moon, asteroids, comets and, yes, Saturn.

“Unifier of people” In a field where the areas of study are described with words like stellar and extragalactic, it’s easy to see why students such as Daniella Roberts have chosen this field of physics for their careers.

“We don’t know much about our universe and that inspires me to try and figure out how it all works,” said Roberts, a senior from Ecuador who studies telescopic images of quasars.

Walter Van Hamme, a physicist and associate director of FIU’s School of Integrated Science and Humanity, believes the unknown dimension of astronomy is a great unifier of people. Throughout humanity, people have looked up to the stars and wondered.

“Humans are fascinated by what they see in the night sky. Witness, for example, the many thriving amateur astronomy and star gazing clubs scattered around the world,” Van Hamme said. “Undoubtedly, this fascination is due to the innate need of humans to understand what the universe is, what the role we play in it is, where we come from and where we are going.”

The FIU Astronomy Club is among the groups to which Van Hamme is referring. Hosting several “star parties” every semester, the club reaches an audience of students, faculty and community members who participate.

Tech advances “With advances in technology come new and better tools for astronomers to observe the skies, leading to a steady stream of new and exciting discoveries,” Van Hamme said. “It is almost certain that some of these planets have life as we know it. The discovery of an Earth-like planet with signs of life is just a matter of time. I fully expect it to happen in our lifetime.”

Astronomers also play a role in global safety. The world was reminded of this in 2013 when Russia was struck by a meteor the same day that an asteroid made a record-close pass to Earth. The meteor caused a shockwave that injured more than 1,000 people. While the two astronomical events were not related, both generated worldwide media attention. That is why astronomers are trying to map anything they can detect that is moving within the solar system, according to physics professor Caroline Simpson.

“If we do track something that appears to have what is called an Earth-crossing orbit, it is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid or near-Earth object,” Simpson said.

All of FIU’s astronomers are as much explorers as they are scientists. Astronomy professor Fiorella Terenzi seeks the aesthetics of space, searching for distant sounds. She specializes in recording radio waves from far-away galaxies and turning them into music, making her one of the first astronomers in the world to study the sounds of space in an aesthetic context. For her, space is as much about its beauty as its mystery.

But there’s still mystery in it. And that’s why astronomy has a new, permanent home at FIU.

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