Delaware coordinates global star-gazing

    Telescopes around the world are pointed at the same, dying star.

    You wouldn’t think the eastern seaboard would be good for star gazing, but an observatory in Delaware is the center of a world-wide effort to watch stars non-stop.

    Listen:

    [audio:090522kgtelescope.mp3]

    The Whole Earth Telescope is comprised of about 20 observatories around the world. Through June 11th, they will be sending data about the same star to the collaborative’s headquarters at the Mount Cuba observatory in Delaware. The main star of interest is a pulsating white dwarf in the constellation Orphiuchus. Director Judi Provencal says the pulsing can help astronomers determine the composition of the star’s core.

    Mount Cuba observatory in Greenville, DE is the Whole Earth Telescope's headquarters.
    Mount Cuba observatory in Greenville, DE is the Whole Earth Telescope's headquarters.
    Provencal: By learning what’s going on inside of these stars we’re hoping to learn what’s going on inside of the sun right now, because the sun is going to be a white dwarf in about 4 billion years. So it’s like forensic astronomy. It’s like digging around the guts of a dead star.

    The Whole Earth Telescope has been around for more than 20 years.

    The CCD camera attached to the telescope records images of the star's brightness.
    The CCD camera attached to the telescope records images of the star's brightness.
    Provencal: The idea was to be able to observe a star continuously for 24 hours a day for a period of a couple weeks because you can’t do that from a site like this, like right now we can’t observe because the sun is up.

    The telescopes document the star’s pulsing by taking digital images of its brightness. Susan Thompson is the associate director of the Mount Cuba observatory in Greenville. She’s gathering all the data coming in about the star.

    090521kgscope-preview
    Judi Provencal cranks the dome open by hand. The Mount Cuba Observatory was built in 1962.
    Thompson: These are just ccd images. So you can imagine, just like your digital cameras take pictures. our observers are taking pictures but they take anywhere from 500 to 2000 pictures of our star in one night.

    In past years, the project has resulted in the discovery of a planet, and the confirmation of a theory in physics about molecules at super hot temperatures.

    Resources:
    Finder chart for target star
    Whole Earth Telescope
    Mt Cuba Astronomical Observatory

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.