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Senator Barbara Mikulski, Supernova

April 5, 2012
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Adam Riess shows Sen. Mikulski a plaque in her honor.

Scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) near Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus today honored Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s long-term commitment to space science by dedicating a data archive in her name and naming a supernova after her. STScI is in charge of operations for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mikulski, who recently became the longest-serving woman in Congress, fought for the Hubble when it was still in its planning and construction stages in the ’70s and ’80s as well as for repeat service missions to keep it alive, most notably the final 2009 mission, which was almost scrapped after the 2003 Columbia disaster. She also pushed hard to get the James Webb Space Telescope—aka Hubble 2.0—which will be operated out of STScI, funded after the House  proposed cutting its funding and canceling the project  in July 2011.

Mikulski received four standing ovations from a packed auditorium of visitors, friends, family, employees of STScI and NASA, among other agencies, and distinguished guests including Maryland Nobel laureates Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins/STScI and John Mather of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

“Everyone in this room knows the senator for her strong advocacy for what we do here at STScI,” said William Smith, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), pointing out that she has also advocated for science research as a whole. “Her influence is beyond anybody’s measure.”

The Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) contains data from 16 space-based observatories stretching back to the early ’70s; when the James Webb launches in 2018, its data will be stored there as well. The archive currently contains 200 terabytes of data—nearly the amount of information in the Library of Congress—and its data is available for free online to anyone in the world. Scientists, and citizen scientists, can use the archived data to make discoveries.

“You don’t get to be me without a whole lot of ‘we,’” Mikulski said at the ceremony. “The archives belong to the common heritage of mankind. It is paid for by the American people. It is owned by the American people.”

The astronomers also dedicated a supernova—the massive explosion of a star in its death throes—to the senator, naming it Supernova Mikulski. The supernova, the result of the death of a star eight times as massive as the sun, was discovered on Jan. 25 by Riess, and is located 7.4 billion light-years away, in the constellation Sextans. That means that when the supernova exploded, our solar system was still a few billion years away from being born. If it were visible to the naked eye or a ground-based telescope, it could be seen below the bright star Regulus.

Toward the end of the dedication ceremony, Mikulski thanked her great-grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Poland, her mother and father, and God, in addition to her constituents and everyone present. “Religion and science will never collide,” she said. “If science is truth and God is truth we are all compatible.” She concluded with her usual signoff: “God bless you, thank you for this honor, and may the force continue to be with us.”

Video of the ceremony, including speeches from Riess and STScI Director Matt Mountain and a message from former astronaut and former STScI Deputy Director John Grunsfeld, can be found here.

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