Published: July 11, 2005

MSU part of international consortium to explore the structure and evolution of the Milky Way

Contact(s): Tom Oswald Media Communications office: (517) 432-0920 cell: (517) 281-7129 Tom.Oswald@cabs.msu.edu, Timothy Beers Physics and Astronomy office: (517) 355-9200, Ext. 2416 beers@pa.msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Astronomers from Michigan State University are part of an international project whose goal is to understand the structure and evolution of the Milky Way, and to identify tens of thousands of the oldest stars in our galaxy – with the hope of determining their ages and composition.

The project, known as the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration, or SEGUE, is part of the continuation of a project that began five years ago, funded by the Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

That project, known as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), was the most ambitious astronomical survey ever undertaken. Over that five-year period, it measured the precise brightness and positions of millions of galaxies, stars and quasars.

It also made major contributions to the astronomical knowledge base, including the discovery of distant quasars seen when the universe was a mere 900 million years old, and the uncovering of evidence that the Milky Way Galaxy grew by cannibalizing smaller companion galaxies.

MSU, as a member of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics (JINA), an NSF-funded Physics Frontier Center involving MSU, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, is one of eight new institutions joining SEGUE. SEGUE is one of three projects being carried out in SDSS-II, an extension of the original SDSS.

“In addition to obtaining the basic data required to understand the formation and evolution of the Milky Way, one of our primary goals is to identify large numbers of the oldest stars in our own galaxy,” said Timothy Beers, an MSU professor of physics and astronomy who heads MSU’s involvement in SEGUE. “These data will provide detailed insight into how stars and galaxies are formed, as well as into the origin of the elements of the periodic table.

“The first generations of stars have recorded the evidence we need in order to tell the story of the creation of the elements that eventually were incorporated into all of us.”

Much of the project’s work will be done using the 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory near Sunspot, N.M. Some of the follow-up work will be conducted using a new telescope in Chile, a state-of-the-art instrument that is owned and operated by a consortium of institutions, including MSU.

“Once we’ve identified some of the most interesting stars, one of the telescopes that will be used to take follow-up observations is the SOAR telescope,” Beers said.

SOAR, the SOuthern Astrophysical Research telescope, is a 4.1-meter telescope located on a Chilean mountain called Cerro Pachon. It is a joint project between MSU, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation of Brazil and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories.

For more information and a copy of the news release distributed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey II, visit the Web at www.sdss.org/news/releases/20050711.sdssII.html

For more information on MSU’s physics and astronomy program and the SOAR telescope, see www.pa.msu.edu/

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