A bill before the U.S. House of Representatives could name the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in honor of astronomer Vera Rubin, who discovered the first clear evidence of dark matter.
The observatory now under construction on Chile’s Cerro Pachon Ridge is scheduled to start watching the skies over the southern hemisphere in late 2022. Over the next ten years, its 8.4 meter mirror will image every part of the sky once every few nights, giving astronomers a detailed look at a broad area of sky while also watching for objects that move or change from night to night. Astronomers will use that data to track asteroids in our solar system, look for changing objects in the night sky, map the structure of the Milky Way and the history of its formation, and study the role of dark matter in the structure of our universe. The focus on dark matter is something the telescope will share with Rubin, its proposed namesake.
“AURA [the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy], which has a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation to construct and operate LSST, is continuing its ongoing dialog with the agency regarding formal designations for the facility which will include any direction from Congress,” said LSST head of education and public outreach Amanda Bauer.
In 1970, Rubin noticed that the galaxies she was observing didn’t seem to rotate the way physicists predicted they would. In fact, the rotation Rubin observed should have been impossible — unless the discs of her galaxies contained some kind of invisible mass. Some kind of dark matter, one could say. And in the 1930s, Jan Oort and Fritz Zwicky had said exactly that. Rubin had found the first persuasive evidence that dark matter existed.
And there was, apparently, a lot of it. According to her calculations, the galaxies in her study should contain between five and ten times more dark matter than regular, visible matter. Those results stirred up some lively debate at first (exactly the kind of thing Rubin had been trying to avoid by studying galaxies instead of then-controversial quasars), but over the next 30 years or so, the data consistently supported Rubin’s discovery.
She did her groundbreaking work at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory, which was pretty much the A-list telescope at the time. And until 1965, no woman had ever used it. Rubin became the first, and she spent the rest of her career advocating for equal opportunities for women in science, especially inclusion in academic job searches, on review panels, and in National Academy of Sciences membership.
In a statement, Rubin’s sons Allan Rubin, David Rubin, and Karl Rubin voiced their approval for the proposal. “We believe that this is a great way to honor our mother’s achievements and her work for equal rights for women in science,” they said.
The bill’s co-sponsors, House Science Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico, introduced H.R. 3196, the “Vera Rubin Survey Telescope Designation Act” on June 11. If it passes, the telescope will join Asteroid 5726 Rubin and Mars’ Vera Rubin Ridge in bearing Rubin’s name.