Dr. Gordon Richards Receives Humboldt Research Fellowship

Dr. Gordon Richards Department of Physics Drexel University

December 1, 2011 — Last month planet Earth welcomed its seven billionth resident. If that number doesn’t make you feel small, how about this: we’re one of eight planets to orbit the sun out of an estimated 50 billion planets in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is only one of over 100 billion galaxies in the universe! Feeling like an ant yet? What’s even more mind numbing than pondering the sheer size of the universe is actually understanding how it all came to be and how it continues to evolve.

That’s where Dr. Gordon Richards, associate professor of physics in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, comes into play. Dr. Richards is an expert in the identification of quasars and other active galactic nuclei, and has been recently honored with a fellowship that will allow him to research the birth and life of galaxies and quasars.

Through the Humboldt Research Fellowship from the German-based Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Richards will be involved in the early developmental stages of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project, or LSST. The LSST is a revolutionary telescope that will be able to gather an unprecedented amount of data. Its 3200 megapixel camera—the largest digital camera in the world—will have a magnification so intense that it will be able to capture billions of never-before-seen objects, replacing ordinary maps of the cosmos with movies of stars, planets and galaxies.

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project

The 8.4-meter LSST will use a special three-mirror design, creating an exceptionally wide field of view
(Image Credit: LSST Corporation)

Slated for construction in Chile in 2014, the LSST requires a team of highly qualified experts to identify, study and catalog the massive volume of data it will capture. Richards is one of the leaders in determining which of the objects are quasars, a type of active galactic nuclei.

Quasars are created when supermassive black holes are fed new material, like in a collision between galaxies. Richards explains in layman’s terms:

“The material can’t all go back into the black hole at once (sort of how water in your bathtub doesn’t instantly go down the drain when you pull the plug) and the stuff spiraling into the black hole heats up, giving off more than a thousand times the light of the galaxy in the process.”

This disturbance reveals a great deal about the evolution and structure of our universe.

“Quasars are important because they allow us to see galaxies that are much more distant than we can otherwise find,” Richards says, “and understanding them helps us understand how the galaxies we see today came to be.”

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project

Depiction of the LSST on the Cerro Pachón summit in Chilé (Image Credit: LSST Corporation)

Richards is among hundreds of physicists, engineers and astronomers who have teamed together to work on the LSST project. Though the telescope won’t be up and running for another few years, Richards will be working with colleagues in Germany (including a past Humboldt Fellow) to look at data—similar to what the LSST will produce—from a related project called the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS).

The Humboldt Research Fellowship will allow Richards to pursue sabbatical research at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (part of the Pan-STARRS consortium) in Heidelberg, Germany for seven months. The fellowship covers six to eighteen months of research total, which can be spread over three years. During that time, Richards will be developing an algorithm that will help the LSST to determine which of the objects it captures are quasars.

The LSST project is a follow up to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a highly ranked astronomy project with which Drexel was involved. The SDSS created a digital map of the sky over the course of eight years. The LSST will cover the same area of sky in only three days.

Dr. Gordon Richards received his Ph.D. and S.M. in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, and his A.B. in astrophysical science from Princeton University. He has been involved with quasar identification for more than ten years.

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