When they signed up for a one-credit astronomy class at the University of Wisconsin, six students had no idea the class could be one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.
Professor Snezana Stanimirovic’s Astronomy 460 is much more than your ordinary research class. Instead of writing a final paper, the students’ final assignment is to come up with a name for the new galaxy they discovered.
Stanimirovic designed the course so her students would get observation time on the world’s largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory.
“I wanted to structure the class in a meaningful way that would give the students a feel for the basic tools that astronomers really use,” Stanimirovic said.
The class consists of seniors Nick Ballering, Adam Beardsley, Ryan Birdsall, Andrew Wilson, Lucas Hunt and junior Lars Bryan.
“Coming into the class, I had expected to simply learn the astronomer’s computer language,” Ballering said. “But after the first day, I realized this was going to be something bigger.”
Observation time on Arecibo is highly coveted even by professional astronomers who use the telescope 24 hours a day. Stanimirovic had previously worked at the observatory for three years and used her contacts to secure observation time for her students.
The 20-acre dish, located high in the mountains of Puerto Rico, captures radio waves that contain information on distant galaxies. The observatory has been made famous through its scenes from films such as “GoldenEye” and “Contact.”
In preparation for their observation time, the students gathered scientific papers to decide what coordinates they would focus the telescope on. The students settled on a recently published paper that had reportedly found up to 25 galaxies in a relatively unknown part of the universe named the Zone of Avoidance.
Stanimirovic said obtaining data from the Zone of Avoidance is very difficult because the view is obstructed by the dust and gas from the Milky Way.
While the actual experiment was less than thrilling, their discovery and its implications are far reaching.
“We logged onto the Arecibo controller from a computer on the sixth floor of Sterling Hall, uploaded the coordinates we wanted to look at, and pressed the ‘observe’ button,” Ballering said. “Operating the telescope wasn’t all that exhilarating.”
Focusing the telescope on those coordinates, graphs showed the familiar spectrum signals of a spiral galaxy. The students were then able to find the galaxies’ amount of hydrogen and distance from earth, which are crucial pieces of data, Stanimirovic said.
By doing so, the six students were able to discover a new galaxy that had yet to be seen by previous astronomers. The future implications of their discovery in the Zone of Avoidance are important for professional astronomers.
“This discovery will help us move closer to our goal of trying to distinguish a large-scale pattern of the distribution of galaxies in the universe and bridge a gap in our understanding,” Stanimirovic said.
As for the students, they are just taking it one step at a time.
“We are extremely lucky to have been part of a project that has produced such great results so early in our careers,” Beardsley said.