Professor has key role in NASA find discovery

UCLan's Prof Derek Ward-Thompson
UCLan's Prof Derek Ward-Thompson
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A scientist from Preston is the only English-based academic on a ground-breaking international space project.

Professor Derek Ward-Thompson is part of a team that has seen a NASA telescope, housed on a converted jumbo jet, produce important insights into how stars are born from collapsing gas and dust.

The University of Central Lancashire academic is director of the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute of Maths, Physics and 
Astronomy.

He is one of a team of astronomers who studied Rho Ophiuchi A, one of the closest stellar nurseries to earth 424 light-years away.

They used NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner fitted with a 2.5-metre infrared telescope.

The aircraft was able to rise above most of the water vapour in the earth’s atmosphere – which can block some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground.

Prof Ward-Thompson has been working on this project for the past five years .

He said data from the instrument allowed researchers to show dust grains in the cloud were aligned with magnetic fields and they found that changes in the way dust aligned were closely related to differences in the density of the star-forming cloud.

The findings were unveiled at said the American Astronomical Society meeting, in Washington DC.

He added: “You can think of the magnetic field as this net of lines that is mixed together with the material in the cloud.

“Whenever the cloud contracts, it brings the field lines together. So, it acts as a kind of tension that holds the material apart.”