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). Here, over 300 scientists engage in a broad program of research in astronomy, astrophysics, and science education. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC, also contributed to national aerospace goals through its research and education activities.

SAO continued to operate NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which completed its second year of observations in FY 2001 with a series of widely reported results and discoveries. During FY 2001, Chandra observations led to an enhanced understanding of black holes. Chandra took the deepest x-ray images ever and found the early universe likely to be teeming with black holes, probed the theoretical edge of a black hole known as the "event horizon," observed the x-ray afterglows of gamma-ray bursts, and captured the first x-ray flare ever seen from the massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. Chandra data also shed light on the distribution of dark matter by yielding the most accurate estimate to date of the amount of dark matter in galaxy clusters. In the field of supernova research, Chandra associated a pulsar with a supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in 386 AD (only the second pulsar to be associated with a historically observed supernova), and a team of three high school students using x-ray data from Chandra and radio data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array discovered a neutron star within a nearby supernova remnant.

SAO also continued its role as the leader of another NASA satellite, the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS), a space telescope used to study the chemistry and dynamics of the interstellar gas clouds in the Milky Way galaxy. In FY 2001, SWAS observed massive amounts of water vapor surrounding an aging giant star about 500 light years from Earth. The SWAS observations provided the first evidence that extrasolar planetary systems contain water. Scientists concluded that this water likely comes from a swarm of icy comets surrounding the star which are gradually being vaporized. This result was the subject of a NASA Space Science Update news conference held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

In FY 2001, using ground-based observations, SAO scientists discovered high-energy gamma-ray emissions from so-called "extreme" galaxies and created the first large-scale map of the galactic center using emissions from carbon monoxide molecules at submillimeter wavelengths. They also discovered a young star repeatedly emitting spheres of gas into space. An international team of astronomers including a member from SAO discovered dusty disks surrounding young brown dwarfs in the Orion Nebula, indicating that brown dwarfs probably form in a manner similar to stars. SAO scientists set new limits on the amount of material in the outer reaches of the solar system by studying the diffused light from Kuiper Belt Objects too small to be seen directly. Their data set constraints on theories of planet formation in our solar system.

Solar scientists at SAO continued to study the electrically charged atoms (ions) that the Sun expels into the solar system via coronal mass ejections. New observations from SAO’s UltraViolet Coronagraph Spectrometer (UVCS) aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft allowed scientists to: 1) probe physical processes in the explosive coronal mass ejections that can have a strong impact on Earth’s local space environment, and 2) observe, for the first time, the properties of the sources of the high-speed solar wind as these sources reform in conjunction with the Sun’s switch in magnetic polarity. These measurements are coordinated with other SOHO instruments and with the extreme ultraviolet images from the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer satellite. UVCS ultraviolet spectra of sungrazing comets indicated that the nuclei of those comets are in the range of 10–20 meters in diameter. These spectra also provided unique probes of the density and speed of the solar wind.

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. Using MicroObservatory, students can plan observations, take data, and share their results with other schools. SED worked with a consortium of teachers from across the Nation to develop the "From the Ground UP!" program—a series of investigations in physical science for middle and high school students using the MicroObservatory network.

SED’s Science Media Group produced four television workshops and documentaries, ranging from a 1-hour special on science and sports to an eight-part workshop exploring the science of force and motion. SED also continued managing the Annenberg/CPB Channel, a satellite/Web service broadcasting free educational programming nationwide for schools, colleges, and communities. The channel’s reach has grown over the past year to 62,000 schools and 38 million households.

SAO continued to offer its popular Observatory Night lectures and telescope observing to the public on a monthly basis. Lectures aimed at general audiences drew more than 100 people to most events. A new program of monthly "Sci-Fi Movie Nights" was introduced, offering attendees the chance to learn about science in a fun way by comparing what Hollywood got right versus what it got wrong. A CfA scientist introduced each film by discussing the science shown and the social context in which the film was made. These movie nights, with the theme "Everything we learned about science, we learned at the movies," proved extremely popular, with attendances of up to 100 people, and were frequented by science and science-fiction enthusiasts of all ages. SAO also continued to offer "Children’s Night" programs aimed at younger audiences.

Staff of the Center for Earth & Planetary Studies (CEPS) at the National Air and Space Museum were selected as science team members for the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Dr. John Grant is a co-investigator for the HiRISE High-Resolution Imager, which will be capable of color and stereo imaging with about six times higher resolution than any current images of Mars. This imagery will be crucial for understanding the evolution of Mars and the changing role that water has played in shaping the surface of the planet. CEPS chairman Dr. Bruce Campbell is a member of the science team for the Shallow Subsurface Sounding Radar. This system will use radio waves to penetrate the upper kilometer of the Martian crust, map subsurface geologic layering, and search for buried ice and water deposits. Dr. Campbell was also selected as one of 10 principal investigators to receive NASA funding for a 6-month concept study of the Mars Scout Radar instrument proposed for the Mars Scout missions. CEPS staff were further involved in planetary mission planning through co-chairing the Mars Landing Site Steering Group, participating in the Mars Exploration Payload Analysis Group, serving on the Messenger Science Team, and working on numerous other NASA evaluation groups.

CEPS continued its 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 included work on Mercury, Venus, the Moon, and Mars, and corresponding field studies in terrestrial analog regions. CEPS staff studied a variety of geologic processes such as volcanism, cratering, tectonics, and sand movement.

As a NASA Regional Planetary Imagery Facility, CEPS continued to house an extensive collection of images of the planets and their satellites. In addition, CEPS staff participated in the development and presentation of exhibits and public programs, including teacher workshops, special events, and outreach activities in the community. Staff continued to be responsible for developing and maintaining the National Air and Space Museum Web site, including innovative online exhibit materials, interactive educational programs, research highlights, and virtual tours of the museum’s galleries.

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