“There’s all sorts of beautiful things going on here,” Beverly Smith said, gesturing to a colorful swirling galaxy on her computer screen.
She was pointing out galaxies with dust, gases and stars of varying ages, describing how the distant cosmic bodies are tugging and pulling and interacting with each other.
Smith, a professor of physics and astronomy at East Tennessee State University, is one of a handful of professional astronomers in Johnson City and likely the region.
She has been at ETSU for 12 years. Before that she spent time at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder.
She teaches the large introductory classes to astronomy and also upper level courses for both majors and minors.
Her research specialty is studying interacting galaxies and variable stars.
“Nowadays I do a lot of satellite work with NASA,” Smith said. “I’ve used data from the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s unique data. It’s cutting-edge data. It’s the only place you can see it.”
She has also used other telescopes from around the world. ETSU has access to a telescope in California and also one in South America. Smith hopes to get access to the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii to study star-forming regions in distant galaxies. This observatory has a massive telescope that would be good for probing far out into space.
Astronomers from all over the world seek to use telescopes orbiting the Earth or located on the surface. Access is limited, Smith said.
“One thing we do as astronomers is write a lot of telescope proposals, because they’re very competitive,” she said.
One of the things Smith is looking for as she submits proposals for telescope time are interacting galaxies that may be colliding.
“We’re looking at galaxies that are colliding,” Smith said. “Our galaxy, the Milky Way, which has about 400 billion stars, is on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy.”
Of course, Smith said, this will take about 500 million years to happen.
Astronomers are now cataloging other galaxies that are colliding to see what actually happens.
There are probably about 500 people in the world who do the kind of work on interacting galaxies like Smith does.
“I was always interested in space,” Smith said.
She remembered being interested in the Apollo missions and reading science fiction novels growing up.
She majored in physics at Brown University and got her Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Massachusetts.
When she was in graduate school a new satellite was launched to survey the sky. This satellite found all kinds of new celestial objects and her thesis dealt with those new objects, including how galaxies were interacting.
“Before that satellite people hadn’t really paid much attention to interacting galaxies,” Smith said. “They thought they pretty much just sat there.”
Scientists are starting to look for planets similar to Earth now. NASA’s Kepler telescope is searching for habitable planets. Kepler recently detected one that was confirmed earlier this month. It would take about 22 million years to get there, though.
Still, Smith said such discoveries are exciting.
We keep finding more and more planets that are closer and closer to Earth.”