Two high school girls from Morehead who have made discoveries in outer space supporting Einstein’s theory of relativity are coming to the Clark County Public Library to talk about their studies.
Through a pulsar astronomy class taught by Jennifer Carter at Rowan County Senior High School, Hannah Mabry, 17, and Jessica Pal, 15, became involved with the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. The program, led by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University, allows students to conduct “world-class research in pulsar astronomy,” its website states.
Students, after passing two tests, are able to analyze more than 130 terabytes of data collected by the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to try and discover new pulsars.
Mabry and Pal discovered their pulsars almost exactly a year apart.
Pulsars, Carter explained, are neutron stars — the stellar remnant of a large star that has collapsed under its own gravity. They are rapidly rotating objects in space, she said.
“And it’s the electrons in their orbital shells which give rise to light. That’s why you can see. And so the pulsar itself does not emit light. You cannot see it in any way, shape or form,” Carter said during a recent interview in her classroom. “What we can see, very luckily, because they have strong magnetic fields, (is) that charged particles gyrate around those magnetic field lines and emit light.”
Pal discovered her pulsar on Jan. 13, 2012, while looking through data from home on a snow day.
“I started looking through data around 4 o’clock and I was up until midnight,” she said. “I was going through the data and I saw this plot and it looked interesting so I posted it on the ... website, and in the morning, I received an email from the astronomer saying ‘it’s a candidate.’”
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory created the PSC because there weren’t enough people to analyze data from its Green Bank Telescope.
“The Green Bank Telescope — it’s the radio telescope that they use. It’s the world’s largest fully steerable structure, I think just in general, when it had to go into repair, they thought, ‘Well why let this time go to waste?’ and they kept it running and observing,” Mabry said.
When students analyze the data, Mabry said, they rate each set from one to three with “one being ‘this doesn’t look good at all,’ and then two being ‘it looks OK’ and then three, ‘this looks really good, it’s a candidate possibly.’”
If students find a data plot that rates mostly scores of threes, they post it to a Google site and one of the astronomers at the Green Bank Observatory looks at it to see if it is a pulsar. PSC students can look through an online catalogue showing where all discovered pulsars are, and they have access to the data plots through an online server from anywhere in the world.
Mabry discovered her pulsar in January 2011 during an independent study class. She was analyzing her 220th data plot. While waiting for a response from the astronomers to determine she had indeed found one, she got called to the office.
Carter, about to leave for Rome to give a lecture, called to tell her the good news — that she had discovered a rare type of pulsar.
“And I jumped up and down screaming and was very excited,” Mabry said.
Both Mabry and Pal went to the observatory in West Virginia to conduct followup observations.
The significance of pulsar discoveries, Pal said, is that using them, people can detect gravitational waves, supporting the theory of relativity.
“Einstein had theorized that they do exist and that the pulsars can actually generate these waves or these ripples in the fabric of space,” Mabry said.
Carter said the United States Naval Observatory also uses the same type of pulsars Pal and Mabry have discovered to calibrate atomic time standards.
John Maruskin, adult services librarian, said when he heard about the girls’ discoveries, he thought having them come in to talk would be perfect for the philosophy club.
“It’s sort of neat to see that in this area, there are these things being done that are actually sort of oriented towards the future,” he said.
Pal and Mabry, along with Carter, will speak at the library during the monthly philosophy club meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 24, in the community room. The event is open to the public, and those interested should call the library, 744-5661, ahead of time.
Contact Katie Perkowski at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter, @TheSunKatie.