Science students get stars in their eyes

By Eric Niiler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 4, 2010; 10:17 PM

When the giant Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia got stuck in one position a few years ago, astronomers collected a big pile of electronic data from one part of the sky but had nobody willing to sift through it.

So they did what many of us do for boring chores: They found some teenagers.

They set teams of high school science students to scanning thousands of computerized "star plots" in search of pulsars, blinking beacons of deep-space radio energy that offer clues to the makeup of the universe. It's been a galactic treasure hunt, and two students have already hit the jackpot.

One was Shay Bloxton, a junior from Summersville, W. Va., who discovered a pulsar last October.

"When I first saw it, I didn't want to get my hopes up," Bloxton said. "Then they confirmed it a few weeks later, and I was really excited."

To find that pulsar, Bloxton spent hours at her home computer using downloaded software that translates the data gathered by the telescope into graphs. The graphs describe the strength, frequency and distance from Earth of a source of radio energy; a series of graphs makes up a star plot.

"I looked through 2,000 individual plots before I found one," Bloxton said."You have to be able to understand a bit of science and what a pulsar is. It's not extremely difficult, but it takes a while."

World's largest

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, built in 2000 and named for the late West Virginia senator, is the world's largest fully steerable telescope. Its 100-meter-wide surface area gives it the ability to pick up extremely faint signals from the distant reaches of space. It is one of five telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a federal facility tucked into a corner of Pocahontas County that since 1958 has been designated a "national radio quiet zone" where radio transmissions are limited or banned to limit interference with scientific inquiry.

But in 2007, the 16-million-pound telescope started sinking into the ground. While workers fixed the tracks at its base, the huge instrument was frozen in position. That cut off the telescope's usual clientele - astronomers who schedule, far in advance, a period of "observing time" on the the telescope, when they point it at the particular sector of the sky they want to study.

Instead, for 21/2 months, the telescope recorded data from 70,000 "pointings" that no astronomer had asked for.

It would have been a shame to waste it. That's when scientists at NRAO and West Virginia University conceived the Pulsar Search Collaboratory and started recruiting students to scan this unwanted trove of data. The scientists get research help; the students get real-world experience about how astronomy works.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Rachel Rosen, director of the student pulsar search program and a Green Bank astronomer. "We don't know exactly from any given section of the sky if there will be a pulsar, but we can make a bunch of guesses. The students are then filling in the blanks."

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