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Black Hole Exploration


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Interview with Dr. Luigi Gallo (Astrophysics professor at SMU)

Dr. Luigi Gallo is a Professor of Astrophysics here at Saint Mary’s. But what you may not know is that he is also the Principal Investigator of the Canadian ASTRO-H Metrology system (CAMS), which is Canada’s contribution to a Japanese-led, next generation x-ray observatory launched in 2016. This brand-new telescope will allow astronomers to explore black holes in unprecedented detail.

We spoke with Dr. Gallo to find out more about his work in this truly awesome field.

Even to someone who knows very little about astronomy, black holes are fascinating. How did the study of black holes become your primary research field?

When I went to grad school I was open to a lot of different fields. But one of my professors was working on black holes. Like you say, it’s the kind of thing where you just have to say black holes and people perk up. I moved to Germany for my PhD and there was a new x-ray telescope that was launched at the time. That’s what started it all. Similarly, with ASTRO-H, my students are getting their first experience on a brand new telescope just like I did.

How did you first get involved in the ASTRO-H project?

I completed a post-doc in Japan before I took a faculty position in Canada at Saint Mary’s. I was aware of the project so I pushed the Canadian Space Agency to get involved in it. They needed a laser alignment system for the telescope — a system to measure the displacement of the Hard X-ray Imager relative to the rest of the satellite — and I knew that [the Canadian Space Agency] had the know-how to build one.

The ASTRO-H telescope is scheduled to launch in early 2016. What will this mission do that hasn’t been done before with other telescopes?

It’s the only observatory x-ray telescope scheduled to launch until late 2020. And it’s the first time some of the instruments on the telescope have ever been flown in space. So it will open up a whole new parameter space for research. In a way, it will be like looking at space through entirely new eyes.

Another thing is that all telescopes on ASTRO-H will be working at the same time. You’ll be able to receive all this information from a single observation. In the past, you would have needed four different telescopes to do what this one telescope can do at one time. It’s opening up a new frontier for us.

I’m guessing students would be very interested in this type of research. Are your students aware of your involvement in the ASTRO-H mission?

Yes. I have graduate students working with me and a PhD student that has already travelled and worked in Japan. I also teach a first-year course where I like to talk about what I’m doing. So they hear about it. As soon as I started talking about black holes and X-ray astronomy, they get really pumped and start asking a lot of questions. A couple of second-year undergraduates are working with me as well, conducting black hole research.

Does it surprise people that Saint Mary’s University is involved in this kind of major international mission?

People don’t expect it. SMU is this small university of 7,000 students that takes up one city block. Yet we’re involved in this half-billion dollar international project. I don’t think a lot of people in Halifax— let alone internationally—appreciate that Saint Mary’s is doing this.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at SMU?

What I love about SMU is that everybody knows everybody. After the first year, students know their professors and professors know their students. It surprises students that we actually know who they are. You’re not invisible here. And this goes for faculty, too. The president here knows me by name. It’s a very cozy environment.

If you had to give one piece of advice to a high school student considering which university to attend, what would you say?

There’s so much stress on considering university as an accreditation program that guarantees you a job at the end. That isn’t what university is about. You have to chase after what you’re passionate about. If you do what you love, things will fall into place.


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