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A stellar sleuth

Published: June 24 2008

Ata Sarajedini

Associate Professor of Astronomy
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

The Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most important instruments mankind has created for observing the universe, is expected to continue functioning for only a few more years. Ata Sarajedini is one of a handful of scientists charged with making the most of its remaining life.

As principal investigator on a $550,000 grant from the Hubble Space Telescope Treasury Program, Sarajedini, an associate professor of astronomy, is using the telescope to take images of star clusters and create an archive of observational data and digital images to be used by astronomers for decades to come.

“Access to this telescope is fiercely competitive, and only about 10 percent of proposals are successful,” said astronomy department chairman Stanley Dermott. “Ata has an international reputation for his research on the origin and evolution of galaxies and the distance scale of the universe. This new project will be a major resource for future astronomers.”

Along with a 10-member team of international scientists, Sarajedini is using the telescope to capture images of 66 globular clusters within our galaxy. The instrument has already sent back images of half of the clusters and is expected to complete the remainder by the end of summer.

“The stars in these clusters are thought to be the oldest in the Milky Way,” Sarajedini said. “By studying them we hope to learn about the formation chronology of our own galaxy and the age of the universe. The orbits of these clusters allow us to measure the mass of our galaxy, akin to placing the Milky Way on a huge balance scale.”

Sarajedini first became interested in star clusters as an undergraduate majoring in astronomy and physics at Yale University. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 1986, he decided to stay on at Yale for graduate school to work with faculty members on this topic. After completing two postdoctoral appointments, first as a Kitt Peak National Observatory Fellow and then a Hubble Fellow, Sarajedini served two years as an assistant professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., before coming to UF in 2001.

Shortly after arriving at UF, Sarajedini received a $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, grant from the National Science Foundation. He is one of seven astronomy faculty members to earn the award in the past seven years, including his wife and fellow associate professor, Vicki Sarajedini.

“No other astronomy department in the U.S. has achieved this, as far as I have heard,” Dermott said. “Since only the top 10 percent of young tenure-track faculty in the United States get CAREER awards, we can safely say that we are hiring some of the best new faculty in the nation.”

In addition to his booming research career, Sarajedini also provides guidance to young astronomers, serving as the department’s graduate coordinator and advisor. He is president of the Star Clusters commission within the International Astronomical Union and a member of the American Astronomical Society.

It’s all a dream come true for Sarajedini, who decided to become an astronomer in his sophomore year of high school. “I loved it as a hobby and knew that if I could do something for a career that I already enjoyed, that would be the perfect profession.”

To learn more about Sarajedini’s research or take a look at his Hubble images, visit http://www.astro.ufl.edu/%7Eata/