For nearly 20 years, scientists and institutions around the world have been part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which has helped map millions of stars and galaxies and created some of the most detailed three-dimensional images of the universe.
Gail Zasowski, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the U, has been involved with the SDSS for many years and now serves as the spokesperson for SDSS-V (the fifth generation of the SDSS), which begins in 2020. See her recent study here: Mapping the Universe.
“We’re already at work even though we don’t officially begin collecting data for two years,” said Zasowski. “I’m excited to represent the University of Utah in building on what we’ve learned from previous surveys and using new technology to help us continue to map individual stars in the Milky Way.”
SDSS-V, however, will map more than stars. It will also help scientists make maps of giant gas emissions in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies and measure properties of supermassive black holes and giant clusters of galaxies that existed in the early universe.
“Gathering this data will help us answer some of the big questions we have, such as the relationship between black holes and their host galaxies across cosmic time,” said Zasowski. “In addition, the information will help us better understand the processes that make up the different chemical elements we find in space.”
“I’m fascinated by the extreme size and distance and the sheer ‘otherness’ of space,” said Zasowski. “Since we’re part of the Milky Way, it’s really the only galaxy in the universe where we can measure the properties of stars one by one, so it serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding what happens in other galaxies where it isn’t possible to measure individual stars.”
After serving as a National Science Foundation postdoc at Ohio State as well as at Johns Hopkins, Zasowski moved on to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. In the summer of 2017, she and her husband Daniel Wik both moved to Utah as assistant professors in the Physics and Astronomy Department.
Zasowski also is interested in providing educational outreach activities for younger students. “Astronomy is great for bringing out the sense of awe and wonder in kids,” she noted. “It helps them understand science while giving them the tools to solve problems. These educational activities are important because they give students a perspective and an appreciation for space—it helps them see they’re part of something much larger.”