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

Scientific Area: 

Explore Carnegie Science

Alycia Weinberger
November 22, 2021

Washington, DC—Carnegie’s Alycia Weinberger and collaborators from the University of Texas at Austin and the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute received last month a $1.2 million grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation to develop an instrument for the Magellan telescopes at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile that will enable breakthroughs in our understanding of the planet formation process.

Called MagNIFIES, for Magellans' Near-Infrared Five-band Immersion grating Efficient Spectrograph, the completed instrument will have the largest simultaneous spectral coverage of any high-resolution spectrograph in the world. It was the brainchild of

Rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope courtesy of the GMTO.
November 5, 2021

Washington, DC—The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Thursday ranked the U.S. Extremely Large Telescope program as a top strategic priority, recommending federal support for the final construction stages of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is being built at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

The Academies’ highly anticipated report, Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s, was the result of its survey of the astronomy and astrophysics community regarding strategic goals and initiatives for the next 10 years.  The recommendation detailed that building an extremely large telescope “is

September 1, 2021

Pasadena, CA—Astronomer Ana Bonaca, for whom the Milky Way galaxy is laboratory to explore the evolution of the universe, has joined the Carnegie Observatories as a Staff Scientist.

Bonaca arrived this month from Harvard University where she held a prestigious Institute for Theory and Computation Fellowship. Prior to that she completed her Ph.D. in astronomy from Yale University and a master’s degree in physics from the University of Zagreb.

Bonaca studies how the uneven pull of our galaxy’s gravity affects objects called globular clusters—spheres made up of a million stars bound together and orbiting a galactic core. The Milky Way is enveloped by a

June 29, 2021

Washington, DC—A team of Carnegie astronomers was awarded $1.4 million from the Heising-Simons Foundation to develop an ambitious and versatile infrared spectrograph for the Magellan telescopes at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile that will enable breakthroughs in understanding cosmology, galaxy evolution, and exoplanet atmospheres.

Spearheaded by instrument lead Nicholas Konidaris and project scientists Andrew Newman and Gwen Rudie of the Carnegie Observatories, the project, called the Magellan Infrared Multiobject Spectrograph, or MIRMOS, will expand researchers’ view of the sky in the infrared wavelengths of the spectrum and significantly advance

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

Ana Bonaca is Staff Member at Carnegie Observatories. Her specialty is stellar dynamics and her research aims to uncover the structure and evolution of our galaxy, the Milky Way, especially the dark matter halo that surrounds it. In her research, she uses space- and ground-based telescopes to measure the motions of stars, and constructs numerical experiments to discover how dark matter affected them.

She arrived in September 2021 from Harvard University where she held a prestigious Institute for Theory and Computation Fellowship. 

Bonaca studies how the uneven pull of our galaxy’s gravity affects objects called globular clusters—spheres made up of a million

Peter Gao's research interests include planetary atmospheres; exoplanet characterization; planet formation and evolution; atmosphere-surface-interior interactions; astrobiology; habitability; biosignatures; numerical modeling.

His arrival in September 2021 continued Carnegie's longstanding tradition excellence in exoplanet discovery and research, which is crucial as the field prepares for an onslaught of new data about exoplanetary atmospheres when the next generation of telescopes come online.

Gao has been a part of several exploratory teams that investigated sulfuric acid clouds on Venus, methane on Mars, and the atmospheric hazes of Pluto. He also

Anne Pommier's research is dedicated to understanding how terrestrial planets work, especially the role of silicate and metallic melts in planetary interiors, from the scale of volcanic magma reservoirs to core-scale and planetary-scale processes.

She joined Carnegie in July 2021 from U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she investigated the evolution and structure of planetary interiors, including our own Earth and its Moon, as well as Mars, Mercury, and the moon Ganymede.

Pommier’s experimental petrology and mineral physics work are an excellent addition to Carnegie’s longstanding leadership in lab-based mimicry of the

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