Visualizing the Non-visible Areas in Our Galaxy

Dr. Eric Becklin’s Adventure With Infrared Astronomy

On Oct. 24, 2019, Dr. Eric Becklin, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), visited Embry-Riddle to give his Henry Norris Russell Award Lecture: “Years of Adventure in Infrared Astronomy.” Becklin took his audience through his journey starting as a graduate degree student in 1965 all the way to present-day with his involvement with the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

As a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), Becklin helped discover an infrared-bright object, now known as the Becklin-Neugebauer Object, in the Orion Nebula. The discovery was a group effort of Dr. Eric Becklin and Dr. Gerhart Neugebauer with a vital suggestion from Dr. Robert Leighton. Leighton had told Becklin that the best place to look at young forming stars is in regions of space where hydrogen molecules are ionized that form what are called H2 regions, the Orion Nebula was the closest region to search in. 

The survey at the time had picked up the Orion Nebula, but, due to large amounts of dust and gas, individual protostars could not be observed. They would scan the sky from east to west starting from the brightest star in the Trapezium cluster of the Orion Nebula, Theta1 Orionis C. When he panned down south of the cluster he saw the Theta2 Orionis system and had a hunch that protostars would not be where other types of stars were. This lead to a breakthrough when Becklin viewed the north of the cluster and found a star brighter than Theta1 Orionis C.

Becklin was encouraged by a fellow colleague to pursue more about this newfound star, so they went the Palomar Observatory on the CalTech campus and took measurements at 3.4 and 1.6 microns combined with 10-micron measurements from another source. The data showed the new star was 1 arc northwest of the Trapezium in a region where there was no other bright stars or associated bright stars. Its temperature was 6000 degrees Kelvin, which was the coldest object found in the sky at the time, and gave off only infrared radiation. Once this data was shared, measurements with 20-microns were taken and discovered that there was a whole nebula, extended emissions, around this point source.

The next point of focus was directed toward the infrared radiation from the galactic center. This shift in focus allowed for the discovery of IRC+10216 CW Leonis, a carbon star heavily embedded in a cloud of dust. Just prior to this was the discovery of Buckyballs which is a carbon-60 molecule that aided in Becklin’s discovery.

Becklin was then offered a position in 1979 to do work with the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) that was made to help collect data for targeting systems in the Voyager 1. The data from the Voyager mission allowed him to unearth dust rings around Jupiter. 

With the development in infrared detector resolution and adaptive optics, they predicted that there could be a massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. In 2004, evidence supporting the hypothesis was found with the use of the Keck and VLT Observatories. With those observatories, they monitored stars orbiting around the center that obeyed Kepler’s Law about orbiting objects. With that knowledge, researchers were able to approximate the diameter and distance from Earth of the supposed black hole.

The most recent of milestones was Becklin’s work on SOFIA as the Chief Science Advisor. SOFIA is an airborne observatory on a Boeing 747 that flies four times a week, taking data at 28- to 300-microns. The technology onboard allowed for the detection of the first molecule in the universe produced after the Big Bang, the helium hydride ion HeH+ which had only been predicted before this point.

Becklin strongly encourages scientific development and research studies which are made possible through innovations in technology.