NEW HAVEN -- Professor Pieter van Dokkum made a bet that he could put a few telephoto camera lenses together to form a powerful telescope.
Sure enough, he and his betting partner, who helped in the project, made a telescope that discovered seven new star formations that could be dwarf galaxies of a larger spinning galaxy, or might be full galaxies of their own.
It will take the Hubbell telescope to determine exactly what they are.
"We had dinner and we had a bet whether it would work or not using telephoto lenses," said van Dokkum, chairman of the Yale Astronomy Department, of his colleague Bob Abraham.
"We built it in New Mexico and it turned out to work," said van Dokkum, calling it "almost a hobby project for the both of us.
"We got an exciting result in our first images," said Allison Merritt, a Yale graduate student, in R&D Magazine. Merritt is lead author of a paper about the discovery published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "It was very exciting. It speaks to the quality of the telescope."
They named the telescope Dragonfly because of its resemblance to insect eyes, but it's also a reference to van Dokkum's other hobby, photographing the insects. A book of his work is being published.
The astronomy project, using eight telephoto lenses lashed together, turned up seven new galaxies, but so far it's unknown how far away they are. That's why the scientists have rented time on the giant space-based Hubble telescope "to see if Hubble can find individual stars in the galaxies," he said. That will tell them how far away the galaxies are. It's a difficult task because the galaxies are all diffuse in nature.
For van Dokkum, it's a great mystery to be solved. "We've never seen these kinds of things," he said. "They're further away from what we've been able to [see] so far."
If they're not dwarfs hovering near another galaxy (one that's about as big as our Milky Way), "they would most likely be isolated galaxies that live out there in space without a big neighbor."
In either case, it will give astronomers a chance to study new galaxies that are not associated with the Milky Way. "We were thinking, How can you actually study those kinds of objects?" van Dokkum said.
While the discovery may have no practical value, "it could expand your horizons in a metaphorical sense," van Dokkum said.
And he may be expanding his horizons even more. "We might go further," he said. "We have some plans to expand the array to 40 or 50 lenses."