Sunday, February 6, 2011

Students (Yes Students) Discover Pulsars and More

Alexander Snider and Hannah Mabry in GBT Control Room,
Casey Thompson on-screen, during confirmation observation.
Astronomical discoveries have no loyalties to scientist with PHDs. Anyone with a mind  can  discover the grandest of things out in the universe. Never has that point been more true than with the recent discovery of a rapidly spinning pulsar (30 times a second) by three high school students from Virginia and Kentucky. This rare pulsar located in Ophiuchus and above the Milky way disk was discovered by  Alexander Snider, Casey Thompson and Hannah Mabry as they sifted through data gathered by the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT). These students are a part of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) project, run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, WV, and West Virginia University (WVU). 
Basics of a Pulsar

From the NRAO press release:
The pulsar, which may be a rare kind of neutron star called a recycled pulsar, was discovered independently by Virginia students Alexander Snider and Casey Thompson, on January 20, and a day later by Kentucky student Hannah Mabry. "Every day, I told myself, 'I have to find a pulsar. I better find a pulsar before this class ends,'" said Mabry.When she actually made the discovery, she could barely contain her excitement. "I started screaming and jumping up and down."
Thompson was similarly expressive. "After three years of searching, I hadn't found a single thing," he said, "but when I did, I threw my hands up in the air and said, 'Yes!'." Snider said, "It actually feels really neat to be the first person to ever see something like that. It's an uplifting feeling."

As part of the PSC, the students analyze real data from NRAO's Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to find pulsars. The students' teachers -- Debra Edwards of Sherando High School, Leah Lorton of James River High School, and Jennifer Carter of Rowan County Senior High School -- all introduced the PSC in their classes, and interested students formed teams to continue the work.Even before the discovery, Mabry simply enjoyed the search. "It just feels like you're actually doing something," she said. "It's a good feeling."

Once the pulsar candidate was reported to NRAO, Project Director Rachel Rosen took a look and agreed with the young scientists. A followup observing session was scheduled on the GBT. Snider and Mabry traveled to West Virginia to assist in the follow-up observations, and Thompson joined online.
"Observing with the students is very exciting. It gives the students a chance to learn about radio telescopes and pulsar observing in a very hands-on way, and it is extra fun when we find a pulsar," said Rosen.Snider, on the other hand, said, "I got very, very nervous. I expected when I went there that I would just be watching other people do things, and then I actually go to sit down at the controls. I definitely didn't want to mess something up."Everything went well, and the observations confirmed that the students had found an exotic pulsar. "I learned more in the two hours in the control room than I would have in school the whole day," Mabry said.

Discoveries by High school students are growing. The PSC has netted three discoveries by high school students in recent years. In 2009, Shay Bloxton of Summersville, WV, discovered a pulsar that spins once every four seconds, and Lucas Bolyard of Clarksburg, WV, discovered a rapidly rotating radio transient, which astronomers believe is a pulsar that emits radio waves in bursts. But there are other programs out there that have students doing the discovering as well as students independently discovering new objects

In 1994, two students used images from the Leuschner Telescope in Berkeley, Calif., to record the first sighting of SN 1994I, a supernova in the Whirlpool Galaxy.  These images of SN 1994I were obtained before its discovery was reported. High school students Heather Tartara and Melody Spence requested observations of the Whirlpool Galaxy on March 29 and 31, 1994. Their request was made through the Hands-On Universe program, which allows elementary and high school students to request observations on automated telescopes. Their images captured the Whirlpool Galaxy just before and after SN 1994I began to brighten, and are some of the earliest data recorded for a supernova.The two girls wanted to take pictures of galaxy M51, or Messier 51, to try to capture a picture of the galaxy's black hole. What they ended up finding,  was the supernova.
In November 2008 Warwick Valley High School junior Caroline Moore  a freshman, was catapulted into International fame following the discovery in her backyard observatory of what has now been named Supernova 2008ha in galaxy UGC 12682. She became the youngest person in the history of astronomy to discover a supernova. This discovery earned her the 2010 Jack Horkheimer/Parker Award for exceptional service in astronomy.

I can go on  and on but the important thing here is that students are engaging science  and that my fiends is a wonderful thing. More importantly teachers are teaching hands on science be it in the class room or after school in a club setting .  The opportunities for amateur discoveries abound.  Hobby  Space is a great website listing a huge number of organizations using Students and amateurs alike to do real science.  We are talking real, hands on make a difference science. If you are a teacher,  take a look and get involved. Shaping the minds of tomorrow's scientists  is just about as noble an endeavor as one can have.

Keep looking up!

Steve T

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