These High School Students Earned Their Astronomer Chops By Discovering a Pulsar
pulsar widest orbit

We’ve all looked to the skies and wondered – what is up there? One team of high school students is answering a tiny part of the riddle.

By analyzing data from the National Science Foundation’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the team of students discovered a previously unknown pulsar.

Cecilia McGough and De’Shang Ray spotted the pulsar in a summer Pulsar Search Collaboratory workshop in 2012.

Astronomers used the GBT to confirm the find. The pulsar proved to be unique. It has the widest orbit ever detected around a neutron star. It’s also part of just a handful of double neutron star systems (that have been discovered.)

green bank telescope

The 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope

“Pulsars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe,” said Joe Swiggum, lead author on a paper about the pulsar. “The students’ discovery shows one of these objects in a really unique set of circumstances.”

Orbits between pulsars and their companion neutron star are usually incredibly close – about the size of our Sun. A full orbit can take less than a day. For this pulsar, astronomers estimate its orbital path spans nearly 52 million kilometers. That’s comparable to the distance between the Sun and Mercury, and is “more than twice as large as that of any previously known double neutron star system,” according to Swiggum.

The press release explains why double neutron star systems are so rare:

When a massive star goes supernova at the end of its normal life, the explosion can be a little one-sided, imparting a “kick” to the remaining stellar core. When this happens, the resulting neutron star is sent hurtling through space. These kicks — and the corresponding mass loss from a supernova explosion — mean that the chances of two such stars remaining gravitationally locked in the same system are remarkably slim.

The two high school students are now in college. Here’s what they had to say about their discovery.

“This experience taught me that you do not have to be an ‘Einstein’ to be good at science,” said McGough, who is now Penn State University majoring in astronomy and astrophysics. “What you have to be is focused, passionate, and dedicated to your work.”

That’s good advice for anyone, and can’t be said enough.

“As we look up into the sky and study the universe, we try to understand what’s out there,” said Ray, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County studying biology, engineering, and emergency medical services. “This experience has helped me to explore, to imagine, and to dream what could be and what we haven’t seen.”

Here are a few facts about the Green Bank Telescope.

It’s the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.

The GBT is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone. This area protects the sensitive telescope from radio interference. NPR has a great article about the zone.

national radio quiet zone

Credit: Joel Bradshaw/Wikipedia

The Green Bank Telescope made headlines earlier this year when it took several images of asteroid 2004 BL86 and its tiny moon.

GBT asteroid and moon

Top image: Artist’s impression of pulsar PSR J1930-1852. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

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