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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., July 21, 2011—Karen B. Kwitter, the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Astronomy at Williams College, and five colleagues have been granted observing time with the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The team has been awarded 32 orbits—each orbit equals 96 minutes—using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to study how planetary nebulae have contributed to the amounts of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in the Milky Way Galaxy. These elements radiate strongly in ultraviolet light, which Earth’s atmosphere prevents from reaching the ground, so observations of them must be made from space.
Planetary nebulae are the ejected outer layers of stars that can be up to 10 times as large as the sun. During a star’s evolution, the products of nuclear fusion in the interior are dredged up into its outer layers. Some of this processed material is included when these layers are ejected into space as a planetary nebula, thus enriching successive generations of stars. All of the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in our bodies was made in stars; roughly half of the carbon and most of the nitrogen we owe to planetary nebulae. One of Kwitter’s students, Matthew Hosek ’12, will participate in this research as part of his senior honors thesis in astrophysics.
The team, which includes astronomers from Rice University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Washington, the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, will receive $224,000 in research support from NASA, which operates the Hubble Telescope along with the European Space Agency.
Kwitter and her colleagues are also studying planetary nebulae in the Andromeda Galaxy to help understand the formation of spiral galaxies like Andromeda and the Milky Way; they received a National Science Foundation grant for this research in 2008.
Kwitter is the author or co-author of more than 50 scientific papers that have appeared in numerous publications, including the Astronomical Journal and the Astrophysical Journal, and she has written four books, including Force and Motion, Our Solar System, and Atmosphere and Weather for the Hands-On Science series.
A faculty member at Williams since 1979, she regularly teaches the introductory astrophysics course, in addition to “Observing and Data Analysis Techniques” and “Between the Stars: The Interstellar Medium.” Her students have participated extensively in all aspects of her research.
Kwitter is a member of the American Astronomical Society, Sigma Xi, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the International Astronomical Union; she is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Kwitter received her B.A. from Wellesley College and her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California-Los Angeles.
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.