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Vassar astronomy professor Debra Elmegreen is a member of the Hubble Space Telescope's science team that has found "Jurassic Space."

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY--Debra Elmegreen, the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy and Department Chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, is a key member of the Hubble Space Telescope science team that recently has found "Jurassic Space" or the "astronomical equivalent of prehistoric life in our intergalactic backyard," according to the Space Telescope newscenter announcement (18 February 2010). The science team's results are published in the February 2010 issue of The Astronomical Journal.

Elmegreen, who is the president-elect of the American Astronomical Society, noted that the science team formed a few years ago, drawn together by mutual research interests. Her own part of the team's research focuses on analyzing the data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Elmegreen remarked that Hickson Compact Group 31 (one of 100 compact galaxy groups catalogued by Canadian astronomer Paul Hickson) is the first of several that the team is currently analyzing, using data from 60 orbits with HST. In addition to the Hubble Space Telescope, the team analyzes infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, ultraviolet observations from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), and NASA's Swift satellite.

"We found the oldest stars in a few ancient globular star clusters that date back to about 10 billion years ago. Therefore, we know the system has been around for a while," noted astronomer Sarah Gallagher of The University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, leader of the Hubble study. "Most other dwarf galaxies like these interacted billions of years ago, but these galaxies are just coming together for the first time. This encounter has been going on for at most a few hundred million years, the blink of an eye in cosmic history. It is an extremely rare local example of what we think was a quite common event in the distant universe."
In addition to team leader Sarah Gallagher (University of Western Ontario) and Debra Elmegreen (Vassar), the other members of the the science team include: Pat Durrell (Youngstown State University), Rupali Chandar (University of Toledo), Jayanne English (University of Manitoba), Jane Charlton, Caryl Gronwal, and Jason Young (Penn State), Panayiotis Tzanavaris (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center), Kelsey Johnson (University of Virginia), Claudia Mendes de Oliveira (University of São Paulo), Brad Whitmore (STScI), Ann Hornschemeier (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center), Aparna Maybhate (STScI), and Ann Zabludoff (University of Arizona).

For additional information on the discovery, see

About Debra Elmegreen

Last year Debra Elmegreen was elected the 43rd president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). She is the first AAS president from a liberal arts college in the 110-year history of the organization, whose membership includes approximately 7700 astronomers throughout North America. A noted investigator of galaxies, Elmegreen will serve as president-elect of AAS until May 2010, when she will assume the two-year presidency of the organization of professional astronomers, through 2012. Representing AAS in October 2009, she was one of 50 astronomers from around the world at the Vatican Observatory's celebration of the International Year of Astronomy, which marked the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's first astronomical observations.

Like Maria Mitchell, the celebrated astronomer whom Vassar hired as its first professor in 1865, Elmegreen is a pioneer in her field. The first woman to graduate with a bachelor's degree in astrophysics from Princeton in 1975, Elmegreen also was the first woman to be awarded a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship for research at the Palomar Observatory in California.

As chair of the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 1991-97, Elmegreen led efforts to advocate for women's rights in astronomy. She also served as chair of the Space Telescope Users' Committee from 2002-05. Recently, Elmegreen was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey Committee, whose role will be to set national astronomy goals and priorities for the next decade.
Elmegreen's research interests are star formation and the structure of spiral and interacting galaxies. She observes in optical, near-infrared, and radio wavelengths in the local and high redshift universe.

Astronomy at Vassar College

Maria Mitchell, who was America's first woman astronomer and the first director of Vassar's observatory, helped to shape the way astronomy is taught at Vassar. She was famous for pushing her students to think for themselves, do their own research, and come to their own conclusions. She believed that students work best when they are part of a supportive scientific community. (Mitchell's telescope is now on display at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.)

The astronomy faculty at Vassar is committed to the same principles as Mitchell and provides many opportunities to students in the department. The astronomy curriculum includes introductory and advanced astrophysics courses with topics covering planets, stars, interstellar matter, galaxies, and cosmology, and observational techniques.

Class of 1951 Observatory at Vassar College

The Class of 1951 Observatory houses two of the largest telescopes in New York State, a 20-inch and a 32-inch reflector, which are housed in separate domes and are equipped with research-grade electronic cameras. The observatory also has three spectrographs and smaller telescopes that include a Coronado solar telescope and an historic 8-inch refractor. The Observatory supports Vassar coursework, public education, and professional research in astronomy. Ongoing research includes programs monitoring the brightness and colors of active galactic nuclei, and measuring the chemical abundances of unusual stars in the Milky Way.

Visitors from the community are welcome at the observatory for open nights on Wednesday nights from 9:00-11:00pm during the academic year, weather permitting. If uncertain about weather conditions or the viewing schedule, please contact the Department of Physics and Astronomy at (845) 437-7340 before 4:30pm, or call the observatory at (845) 437-7679 after 8:45pm.

Individuals with disabilities requiring accommodations or information on accessibility should contact Campus Activities Office at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space and/or assistance may not be available.

Directions to the Vassar Campus are available.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, February 23, 2010