Globular clusters are spherical systems of some 100,000  gravitationally bound stars. They are among the oldest components of our galaxy and are key to understanding the age and scale of the universe. Previous measurements of their distances have compared the characteristics of different types of stars in the solar neighborhood with the same types of stars found in the clusters. However, these measurements have systematic errors, which limit the determination of cluster ages and distances.

 Ian Thompson has a different approach to the problem: using observations of exceedingly rare Detached Eclipsing Binary stars. These systems have two separated stars orbiting each other such that the orbital plane is in the line of sight to the stars. As one star passes in front of the other the total light is modulated, and the shapes of these eclipses determine their relative sizes and separation. Variations in their radial velocities and Kepler's laws yield absolute dimensions of the system. Distances to the binaries can then be measured by comparing their apparent brightness with their surface brightness, as estimated from their infrared colors. The ages can be determined when one of the stars is at the end of its main-sequence lifetime.

Thompson searches for these stars by monitoring a sample of nearby southern globular clusters with the Swope 1-meter telescope at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory over many nights to detect eclipses and measure the orbital periods. The shape of the light curves—the way the brightness varies over time--are measured with the du Pont 2.5-meter telescope, and radial velocity curves are now being obtained with the MIKE echelle spectrograph on the Clay telescope. Only one to four eclipsing binaries have been detected in each cluster, but these are sufficient to overhaul our imperfect knowledge of their distances and ages.

Thompson also works on instrumentation. With instrument scientist Greg Burley, he has built the CCD cameras for Magellan instrumentation (IMACS, MagE, MIKE, and LDSS3) and the guide cameras for the two Magellan telescopes. Other projects include a camera for the Magellan Planet Finding Spectrograph, and a novel astrometric camera for the du Pont telescope being built in collaboration with Alan Boss.

 Thompson received his B.Sc. and M. Sc. in physics and astronomy from the University of British Columbia and his Ph. D. from the University of Western Ontario where he was also a postdoctoral fellow. Before becoming a staff astronomer at Carnegie in in 1994 he was a staff associate, research associate and Carnegie fellow. For more information see http://obs.carnegiescience.edu/users/ian

Scientific Area: 

Explore Carnegie Science

 "Blue Snowball" planetary nebula, courtesy of Eric Hsiao.
September 10, 2020

Pasadena, CA—An unusual stellar explosion is shining new light on the origins of a specific subgroup of Type Ia supernovae.

Called LSQ14fmg, the exploding star exhibits certain characteristics that are unlike any other supernova. For example, its brightness increases at an extremely slow rate compared to other Type Ia supernovae. Despite this, it is also one of the brightest explosions in its class.

“Type Ia supernovae are violent, fantastically bright explosions of a white dwarf—the remnant of a star that has exhausted its nuclear fuel—which is part of a binary system with another star,” said Carnegie astronomer Mark Phillips, an expert in

Widmanstatten pattern characteristic of iron meteorites, courtesy of Peng Ni.
August 3, 2020

Washington, DC— Work led by Carnegie’s Peng Ni and Anat Shahar uncovers new details about our Solar System’s oldest planetary objects, which broke apart in long-ago collisions to form iron-rich meteorites.  Their findings reveal that the distinct chemical signatures of these meteorites can be explained by the process of core crystallization in their parent bodies, deepening our understanding of the geochemistry occurring in the Solar System’s youth. They are published by Nature Geoscience.

Many of the meteorites that shot through our planet’s atmosphere and crashed on its surface were once part of larger objects that broke up at some point in our

Phoenix Stellar Stream illustration courtesy of Geraint F. Lewis.
July 29, 2020

Pasadena, CA—A team of astronomers including Carnegie’s Ting Li and Alexander Ji discovered a stellar stream composed of the remnants of an ancient globular cluster that was torn apart by the Milky Way’s gravity 2 billion years ago, when Earth’s most-complex lifeforms were single-celled organisms. This surprising finding, published in Nature, upends conventional wisdom about how these celestial objects form.

Imagine a sphere made up of a million stars bound by gravity and orbiting a galactic core. That’s a globular cluster. The Milky Way is home to about 150 of them, which form a tenuous halo that envelops our galaxy.

But the globular cluster

The du Pont telescope, courtesy Matias del Campo
July 20, 2020

Pasadena, CA— Filling in the most-significant gaps in our understanding of the universe’s history, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) released Sunday a comprehensive analysis of the largest three-dimensional map of the cosmos ever created.

The survey, of which Carnegie is an integral member, has been one of the most successful and influential in the history of astronomy. It operates out of both Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, home of the survey’s original 2.5-meter telescope, and Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, where it uses Carnegie’s du Pont telescope.

The new results come from the extended Baryon Oscillation

No content in this section.

The fund supports a postdoctoral fellowship in astronomy that rotates between the Carnegie Science departments of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C., and the Observatories in Pasadena California. 

The Earthbound Planet Search Program has discovered hundreds of planets orbiting nearby stars using telescopes at Lick Observatory, Keck Observatory, the Anglo-Australian Observatory, Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory, and the ESO Paranal Observatory.  Our multi-national team has been collecting data for 30 years, using the Precision Doppler technique.  Highlights of this program include the detection of five of the first six exoplanets, the first eccentric planet, the first multiple planet system, the first sub-Saturn mass planet, the first sub-Neptune mass planet, the first terrestrial mass planet, and the first transit planet.Over the course of 30 years we have

The Giant Magellan Telescope will be one member of the next class of super giant earth-based telescopes that promises to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe. It will be constructed in the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Commissioning of the telescope is scheduled to begin in 2021.

The GMT has a unique design that offers several advantages. It is a segmented mirror telescope that employs seven of today’s largest stiff monolith mirrors as segments. Six off-axis 8.4 meter or 27-foot segments surround a central on-axis segment, forming a single optical surface 24.5 meters, or 80 feet, in diameter with a total collecting area of 368 square meters. The GMT

Along with Alycia Weinberger and Ian Thompson, Alan Boss has been running the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search (CAPS) program, which searches for extrasolar planets by the astrometric method, where the planet's presence is detected indirectly through the wobble of the host star around the center of mass of the system. With over eight years of CAPSCam data, they are beginning to see likely true astrometric wobbles beginning to appear. The CAPSCam planet search effort is on the verge of yielding a harvest of astrometrically discovered planets, as well as accurate parallactic distances to many young stars and M dwarfs. For more see  http://instrumentation.obs.carnegiescience.edu/

Johanna Teske became the first new staff member to join Carnegie’s newly named Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) in Washington, D.C., on September 1, 2020. She has been a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, CA, since 2018. From 2014 to 2017 she was the Carnegie Origins Postdoctoral Fellow—a joint position between Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (now part of EPL) and the Carnegie Observatories.

Teske is interested in the diversity in exoplanet compositions and the origins of that diversity. She uses observations to estimate exoplanet interior and atmospheric compositions, and the chemical environments of their formation

Phillip Cleves’ Ph.D. research was on determining the genetic changes that drive morphological evolution. He used the emerging model organism, the stickleback fish, to map genetic changes that control skeletal evolution. Using new genetic mapping and reverse genetic tools developed during his Ph.D., Cleves identified regulatory changes in a protein called bone morphogenetic protein 6 that were responsible for an evolved increase in tooth number in stickleback. This work illustrated how molecular changes can generate morphological novelty in vertebrates.

Cleves returned to his passion for coral research in his postdoctoral work in John Pringles’ lab at Stanford

Brittany Belin joined the Department of Embryology staff in August 2020. Her Ph.D. research involved developing new tools for in vivo imaging of actin in cell nuclei. Actin is a major structural element in eukaryotic cells—cells with a nucleus and organelles —forming contractile polymers that drive muscle contraction, the migration of immune cells to  infection sites, and the movement of signals from one part of a cell to another. Using the tools developed in her Ph.D., Belin discovered a new role for actin in aiding the repair of DNA breaks in human cells caused by carcinogens, UV light, and other mutagens.

Belin changed course for her postdoctoral work, in

Evolutionary geneticist Moises Exposito-Alonso joined the Department of Plant Biology as a staff associate in September 2019. He investigates whether and how plants will evolve to keep pace with climate change by conducting large-scale ecological and genome sequencing experiments. He also develops computational methods to derive fundamental principles of evolution, such as how fast natural populations acquire new mutations and how past climates shaped continental-scale biodiversity patterns. His goal is to use these first principles and computational approaches to forecast evolutionary outcomes of populations under climate change to anticipate potential future