A peek through Hubble ends in letdown Amateur astronomer can't prove theory

May 16, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

A Woodbine man who peered through the Hubble Space Telescope saw the best views ever of a star cluster billions of years old. Unfortunately, that is not all he wanted to see.

"It seems like a real shame after all this time. Everything worked so well," said amateur astronomer Ray Sterner, a 39-year-old mathematician and computer scientist who works at the Applied Physics Laboratory near Columbia.

Mr. Sterner was one of five amateur astronomers nationwide chosen to use the Hubble to test their own astronomical theories. One amateur's project was scrapped because the telescope, in orbit two years, is not sensitive enough because its mirror is flawed.

This week, Mr. Sterner got to see processed pictures created from raw images the telescope transmitted April 25. After working with the four images for about 20 hours on Monday and Tuesday at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, he concluded that he could not prove his theory about colliding galaxies.

Shortly before learning of the 1986 discovery of an arc next to CL2244-02, a cluster of galaxies, Mr. Sterner was "playing with computer programs" that simulated the results of a collision between two galaxies. After seeing a photograph of the arc, he realized it matched one of his computer models.

The established theory of the arc was advanced by the professional astronomers who discovered it. They believe it is actually a more distant galaxy's light bent into an arc by the closer galaxy's gravity, or what is known as a gravitational lens.

Mr. Sterner hoped that by using Hubble he could prove the arc was created by the collision of two galaxies several billion years ago. Mr. Sterner hoped the Hubble would detect that galactic hit-and-run.

"Nearby galaxies, if you look at them, you can almost immediately tell if they've been disturbed," he said.

Just like cars spray broken glass when they are hit, galaxies spray stars in curving and looping streamers when they get broadsided by another galaxy. Mr. Sterner believes the arc is one of those tell-tale streamers, pulled away by the gravity of the colliding galaxy. The Hubble pictures are much crisper than the blur of light seen through ground-based telescopes. Despite that clarity, they do not show more of the smaller arcs or loops Mr. Sterner hoped to find.

"Either they don't exist at all or they're still too faint," Mr. Sterner said.

Hubble's misshapen mirror, which tends to turn what would have been points of light into fiery blotches, may have made it difficult to see the details Mr. Sterner seeks.

"Even if the mirror had been perfect, I still think we would have been pushing it to its limits," Mr. Sterner said.

The bright spot, so to speak, in his observations was the presence of a bright knot of light on the arc, which he said might be a region of star formation created by a galactic collision. The disturbance might help disprove the gravitational lens theory, Mr. Sterner said.

No professional astronomers at the institute have evaluated Mr. Sterner's images, but Marc Postman, an assistant astronomer at the institute, has had a cursory look at the Hubble images.

"To be fair, I would have to say that the jury is still out. I think that a lot more observation has to be done," he said.

In keeping with the spirit of the amateur program, Mr. Sterner has been giving lectures to area schools and astronomy clubs. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, he will give a public talk about his theory and observations at Piney Run Park Nature Center in Eldersburg. Members of his own Westminster Astronomical Society will no doubt be there.

"We are very proud of what Ray's done, but I feel that the work has been his. We feel fortunate that he has allowed us to share it with him," said Curtis Rolelle, a founding member.

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