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Space exploration at the UW: 'Interstellar' sparking interest in astronomy

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MADISON (WKOW) -- The space odyssey film 'Interstellar' comes out to own today and the flick has ignited a huge amount of interest in what's happening now as astronomers study the final frontier.

In a remote-observation lab on the fourth floor of Chamberlain Hall, UW Astronomy Professor Jay Gallagher and his team are using a telescope in Tuscon to get a better understanding of how old the universe is.

They're looking at M-82, a galaxy 10 million light years away. With special equipment, they can focus on star clusters, providing information they use in the dating process.

"Trouble is, it's hard to measure in this particular galaxy," Dr. Gallagher said about their research.

"It's really bright, it was observed by a French astronomer, Messier, in the 18th century," he added.

In the 1930's, UW pioneered the modern day remote-observation. All by creating a way to detect starlight electronically instead of photographically.

Besides remote observations in Arizona, thanks to a new instrument, next year they'll be able to see much more from South Africa.

"What we're doing is we're building more compact instruments with the South African telescope," Dr. Gallagher said.

"The instrument is about the size of a small freezer instead of a small car, so this miniaturization means you can do more," he added.

It's all so they can learn more from their space exploration.

"We're combining new ideas with these modern scale telescopes to make fundamental measurements."


Interstellar's take on black holes and theoretical time travel

Dr. Gallagher says our understanding of space is always evolving, but he does say one trick used in the film wouldn't work.

"If I decided to drop you into a small black hole several things would happen," he said.

"First of all, as you went towards it, the tides would become very strong, your head would be lonesome for your feet. You'd be pulled apart in the Medieval sense by gravity," he added.

But in the film, the protagonist falls into a massive black hole. Dr. Gallagher says there is a possibility you could have soft landing into it, but the trouble, you couldn't get out.

"You would simply fall in, nothing dramatic would happen except as you went into the black hole in that last little step, that one second of time would be a gigantic amount of time to people outside," he said.

Dr. Gallagher does not believe there are any black holes nearby so unlike in the movie, they couldn't theoretically be used to time-travel.

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