Researcher ponders origin of galaxies

COLCHESTER - Assessing data sent to Earth by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. John O'Meara, Saint Michael's College assistant professor of physics, and eight colleagues at four universities, will study how galaxies are born and how they change with time.

O'Meara learned last week that his proposal to do this analysis had been funded by the Space Telescope Science Institute of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Two, two-year grants, one for $158,891 and one for $146, 733, will provide funding to O'Meara, the principal investigator (PI), and colleagues from the University of California, Santa Cruz; Notre Dame, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the University of Chicago, to explore thorny issues about the galaxy,.

The work involves finding specified galaxies using sophisticated optical instruments and measuring techniques that will "enable [the scientists] to estimate [the galaxy's] size, star-formation rate and impact parameter," O'Meara wrote in his grant application. They are studying galaxies through a class of astronomical objects called DLAs, or damped Lyman alpha systems, and expect to obtain and analyze data that "significantly improves understanding of the general DLA population."

The scientists, who connect with each other electronically, will have several meetings over the two-year course of the grants. They will measure data collected by the Hubble telescope and sent back to earth via NASA headquarters. O'Meara and his colleagues decide where to tell the telescope to point, and what objects to observe. The data, beamed to NASA, will be provided to O'Meara and his colleagues, who then process and analyze it.

"Our over all goal," O'Meara explained, is "to see what young galaxies look like and how they change." The galaxies are billions of light years away, he explained, but are detectable by the Hubble Space Telescope. The astronomer will supplement the Hubble data with additional data gathered at the Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, where he travels several times a year.

O'Meara, who came to Saint Michael's this year, was an assistant professor of physics at Penn State University, Worthington Scranton Campus, from 2006 to 2008, and a postdoctoral associate at M.I.T. Kavali Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research from 2004 to 2006.

O'Meara has been an author on 17 refereed journal articles, published in the Astrophysical Journal and Astronomical Journal primarily; three review articles and three conference proceedings.

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