fy2000 link to home page smithsonian

logo for the Smithsonian InstitutionThe Smithsonian Institution continued to contribute to national aerospace goals through the activities of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), which is joined with the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), where over 300 scientists are engaged in a broad program of research in astronomy, astrophysics, and science education. The Smithsonian Institution also continued to contribute to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC, through its research and education activities.

SAO has had a lead role in operating the NASA Chandra X-ray Observatory, which completed its first year of observations in FY 2000 with a series of widely reported results and discoveries. Chandra studied the presence of compact x-ray stars in supernova remnants, the galactic center x-ray source, the disk and jets in the Crab Nebula, and obtained deep images that resolve the x-ray background into faint sources. Chandra also found superbubbles of very hot gas within colliding galaxies; discovered that even small, failed stars emit x-ray flares; found x-rays coming from a comet; and opened a new field of research by discovering medium-sized black holes.

SAO is also the leader of another NASA satellite, the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS) mission, a space telescope that studies the chemistry and dynamics of the interstellar gas clouds in the Milky Way galaxy. SWAS discovered that water, a key component for life, is prevalent throughout space, and found that a substantial amount of water is present in the Martian atmosphere, but, surprisingly, SWAS has been unable to find any molecular oxygen in space. Another SAO program called “The Milky Way in Molecular Clouds: A New Complete CO Survey,” this fiscal year completed a 20-year radio astronomy effort and released an image of the entire galaxy with unprecedented detail and clarity.

In FY 2000 SAO astronomers and their colleagues discovered two new moons of Jupiter (numbers 17 and 18) and a new moon of Saturn (number 22). Solar scientists at SAO used the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) spacecraft to watch the Sun as its activity climbed to a peak during the maximum of its 12-year solar cycle; they also used the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft to study the Sun. New models of the solar activity based on these observations promise to help predict storms of charged space particles. SAO scientists this year discovered several new planets around other, nearby stars, including one Jupiter-sized planet, and achieved the first detection of a new planet by observing it pass in front of the face of its star. Scientists also detected a class of objects, intermediate in size, between stars and planets called “brown dwarfs,” in the Orion nebula. Some very newly formed stars were observed in the process of collapsing, and others were found to have disks or rings of material around them, with compositions resembling that of our own solar system at the time of its formation. SAO scientists continued to be leaders in the field of cosmology and the structure of the universe, especially through the incredible, recent discovery that the universe may be accelerating its expansion due to a repulsive force to gravity. Scientists also developed another new technique for calibrating the distances to galaxies during FY 2000.

The Science Education Department (SED) at CfA continued to host teachers from across the United States at sessions designed to train them in the use of the Department’s many curriculum programs for grades 3-12. SED activities included the “MicroObservatory Program,” which enables classrooms to control small telescopes located around the world, plan observations, take data, and share their results with other schools. SED produced several new television and video shows this year, while staff throughout SAO continued their active involvement with schools. The 7 public Web sites at SAO received about 80 million hits during the year.

The Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) at NASM continued to conduct an active research program in planetary and terrestrial geology and geophysics using remote-sensing data from Earth-orbiting satellites and manned and unmanned space missions. The scope of research activities includes work on Mercury, Venus, the Moon, and Mars, and corresponding field studies in terrestrial analog regions. CEPS staff studied a variety of geophysical processes, such as volcanism, floods, cratering, tectonics, and sand movement. Many of the terrestrial studies also address topics of current concern for global climate change. As a NASA Regional Planetary Image Facility, CEPS houses an extensive collection of images of the planets and their satellites. CEPS continued to have curatorial responsibility for two museum exhibit galleries. The “Exploring the Planets” gallery highlights the planets and their satellites and explores what we have learned about our solar system from interplanetary spacecraft. Planning is actively underway for a new “Exploring the Planets” gallery. The “Looking at Earth” gallery illustrates the ways in which aerial photography and satellite images are used to obtain a better understanding of the Earth. Staff participated in the development and presentation of public programs, including teacher workshops, special events, and outreach activities in the community. CEPS staff also continued to be responsible for developing and maintaining the NASM Web site, including innovative online exhibit materials, interactive educational programs, research highlights, and virtual tours of museum galleries.

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