Astrophysicist Timothy Cook believes dust may hold the key to understanding the universe.
Cook, an assistant professor of physics and a faculty researcher at the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST), is studying dust – in a spiral galaxy called M101, about 25 million light-years from Earth – to better understand how the stars and galaxies evolved.
“It turns out that galaxies are pretty dusty, and the dust is pretty important,” explains Cook.
Determining how dust varies from M101’s core to its rim will help scientists understand the evolutionary history of galaxies.
In 2012, Cook and his research team used an 18-foot-long Black Brant IX two-stage sounding rocket to successfully launch a NASA-funded science experiment called IMAGER from the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. They used IMAGER to observe M101, which is located in the constellation Ursa Major, near the Big Dipper’s handle.
In another project launched in 2015, Cook and fellow UMass Lowell rocket scientist and physics professor Supriya Chakrabarti sent aloft a rocket-borne experiment called PICTURE-B to take direct images of the disk of dust surrounding the nearby star Epsilon Eridani. That mission helped advance the design of future space telescopes for imaging planets outside our solar system. The ultimate goal of the research: to discover Earth-like planets around sun-like stars capable of supporting life.
“Astronomy does generate practical spinoffs, but at its heart, at this point in history, it is more inspirational than practical. Astronomy is about finding our place in the universe, learning about the stunning, awe-inspiringly cool world that we live in,” says Cook.
Cook spent two decades conducting rocket experiments at Boston University before joining UMass Lowell’s Department of Physics and Applied Physics in January 2012. His enthusiasm for his work is infectious.
“How can one not find space experiments exciting? I’m hooked on all those things, and I pretty much always have been. I’m fortunate to have been surrounded all my life by supportive people, but this is the sort of thing that’s so cool you just do it, regardless of what people think,” he says.
Cook received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1985 and a doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Colorado in 1991.