The $200 Solution

July 28, 2010

Barry McKernan and Saavik Ford, both assistant professors in the BMCC Science Department, have long been fascinated by black holes, those mysterious regions in deep space from which nothing—not even light—can escape. But, like other astronomers, they have been stymied in their efforts to study “supermassive black holes,” which throw off enough light to drown out neighboring bodies.

Then, over coffee at the American Museum of Natural History, they came up with a solution.

No longer blinded by the light

“When the James Webb Space Telescope is launched in 2014, its camera will be fitted with a non-redundant mask—a metal disk with holes through which light from a bright object is focused on a detector,” explains McKernan.

The disk effectively screens out the light from extremely bright sources, allowing washed-out objects nearby to appear. The main application of the mask, which is only a few inches in diameter and costs $200 to fabricate, will be to search for planets orbiting bright stars in the earth’s galaxy.

“Saavik and I were chatting over coffee with our colleagues at the Museum one day, where we’re both research associates in the Astrophysics department,” McKernan recalls. “We suggested that the mask could also be used outside our galaxy to view dim objects near supermassive black holes.” Put simply, he says, “The mask could enable us to see further and deeper than ever before—and to get us much closer to the action.”

It seemed like a good idea to their museum colleagues and also to the National Academy of Sciences, where Ford and McKernan presented their proposal in a technical white paper. Their work now figures in an international collaboration involving scientists from the museum, UCLA, Princeton, Cornell, and the University of Sydney, funded by a $1.5 million grant from NASA.

No mid-flight repairs

“Scientists already know that black holes and their host galaxies ‘know’ about each other,” says Ford. “What we want to learn is how and at what point they talk to each other.”

Over the summer, she and McKernan will assemble a list of target holes for JWST to focus on with the aid of the non-redundant mask. “We’ll be looking at how stars are formed in these regions and examining the flow of matter in and out of the black holes as well as other phenomena that would otherwise be inaccessible to us,” she adds.

 Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, “the JWST won’t be serviceable by astronauts,” Ford says. “Once it’s up, it’s up, so we’ll need to know exactly what we’re doing before it gets off the ground.”

Assuming all goes according to plan, Ford and McKernan expect that the mask will be used in future space telescope missions. “For now,” Ford says, “we see ourselves as a small but valuable part of an exciting collaboration.”


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  • Ford and McKernan continue their study of black holes
  • They propose using a small metal “mask” to view dim nearby objects
  • Their solution will be used with the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2014

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