Postdoc Spotlight - Timothy J. Rodigas

Magellan Clay Telescope
Carnegie Institution for Science's Magellan Clay Telescope in Chile.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014 

Like most kids, Timothy J. Rodigas (he goes by T.J. informally) did not enjoy his math and science classes growing up. And like most parents, his tried to get him to enjoy his studies more by giving him his own copy of Eyewitness: Astronomy, a children’s science book packed full of colorful prints and fun facts about the Universe. Reading this book, T.J. began his first exploration of the planets, stars, and long-unsolved scientific mysteries. Little did he know he’d eventually make this new passion his career by switching his major from Greek and Latin to Astronomy at the University of Virginia and then receiving his Masters and Ph.D in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2010 and 2013, respectively.

The debris disk HD32297, imaged at 3.8 microns (infrared). This disk is viewed almost perfectly edge-on. (Image Credit: Timothy J. Rodigas)

Now, T.J. has exchanged his personal copy of Eyewitness for the Magellan Clay Telescope in Chile to aid him in his search for the ingredients necessary to sustain Earth-like life in the Universe. Light from distant stars reflects off the telescope’s huge mirror to reveal the presence of debris disks (pictured left), the dusty debris left over after planets form. To do this, he uses advanced technology called “adaptive optics,” which deforms a mirror nearly 1000x per second to remove the “twinkle” we see when look at stars in the night sky. This enables him to produce high-contrast, high-resolution images of the debris disks at different wavelengths. The final product is a low-res “spectrum” of the dust, which allows him to see the water, and organic materials that comprise the dust around each star.

T.J. in front of the 6.5 meter MMT primary mirror on Mount Hopkins in Arizona during one of the many observing runs he participated in during graduate school at the University of Arizona. 

T.J. is currently a postdoc at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC and was recently awarded the Rodger Doxsey Travel Prize for this year’s American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in January. From surveying far-out planets and stars to discovering the building blocks of life at different ends of the Universe, T.J.’s childhood aspiration of galactic exploration has now come to fruition.

Written by Robin A. Dienel28 January 2014