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UW’s Michael Pierce Appointed to Thirty Meter Telescope Science Team

May 22, 2017
man standing with small telescope in hallway
Michael Pierce, an associate professor in UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is part of the Science Team for the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. (UW Photo)

Near Pasadena, Calif., and at various locations around the world, a team of scientists, engineers and project specialists is busy planning and designing what eventually will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth. And a University of Wyoming professor was recently invited to play an integral role. Again.

Michael Pierce, an associate professor in UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is part of the Science Team for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Observatory Corp.

The team is tasked with defining the science that will be conducted using the TMT.

“I did join the science team for one of the first light instruments for the Thirty Meter Telescope,” Pierce says. “The instrument is the Infrared Multi-Object Spectrograph, which is a $25 million instrument on the telescope. There are five of us on the science team.”

The estimated $1.6 billion TMT has not yet been built. But, when completed, it will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time.

“It will be one of the largest telescopes in the world and three times larger than anything we have now,” Pierce says.

Pierce is no stranger to building instruments for large telescopes. In 2012, Pierce finished creation of a large infrared camera -- known as the Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (NIIS) -- to study the history of the universe. Additionally, the infrared camera is used to observe gamma-ray bursts, one type of exploding star. By measuring the frequency of such bursts, it’s possible to measure the rate at which stars form.

Before this latest appointment, Pierce previously was made a member, in 2013, of TMT’s High Red Shift Science Definition Team, a group that studies galaxies located light years away.

“It’s like looking back in time,” Pierce says, explaining that group’s function. “With this (TMT) telescope, it’s like a time machine. We can look at history 10 billion years ago.”

Pierce is the Wyoming state coordinator for NASA’s Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) Experiment. Using 61 telescope stations across the country, including nine in Wyoming spaced approximately 50 miles apart, the project’s goal is to create a continuous 90-minute movie of the solar corona during the total eclipse. Researchers and scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the sun’s inner corona.

Pierce received his Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii in 1988 and did postdoctoral work at Kit Peak National Observatory and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. He came to UW in 2001 after being on the faculty at Indiana University. Pierce studies galaxies, cosmology and works on astronomical instrumentation.

The nonprofit TMT Observatory Corp. was founded in June 2003 and is a collaboration among universities led by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California system; and institutions in Canada, China, India and Japan.

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