Students Will Attempt to Photograph Shuttle Discovery Flight At The Edge of Space

August 2010 Launch site Warner Springs Gliderport is in the middle of this shot from the edge of space. Credit: Quest for Stars


From a Challenger Center press release:

If all goes according to plan, a balloon with a student-oriented payload will photograph Space Shuttle Discovery as it climbs into space from an altitude of 100,000 feet. There will also be live streaming video from the balloon itself during the mission – sent back by two regular smartphones running Google’s Android operating system.

Co-sponsored by Challenger Center for Space Science Education, this mission is one in a series of flights conducted by Quest for Stars, a California-based non-profit educational organization that uses off-the-shelf hardware and a little ingenuity to allow students to place experiments at the edge of space at exceptionally low cost.

Quest for Stars and Challenger Center for Space Science Education have now joined together to promote the use of these low cost delivery systems. This mission will be the first of what is hoped to be many future collaborations.

A helium-filled balloon carrying the “Robonaut-1” payload (not related to the Robonaut-2 that is launching on board Discovery) will be launched from a location in Florida some distance away from Kennedy Space Center. The time and location of launch will be determined by weather conditions. With a currently planned STS-133 launch time of 4:50 p.m. EST, the balloon will be launched between 3:00 – 3:50 p.m. EST so as to be in position for Discovery’s supersonic transit of the stratosphere. If there is a delay in the launch of Discovery, the team is ready to try again – several times – on subsequent days.

The balloon will rise at a rate of 800-1,000 feet per minute to an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet. After accomplishing its mission, the payload will be released and descend by parachute. After the payload descends for 15-30 minutes, a trained recovery team will retrieve the payload and download its data and imagery.

Onboard Robonaut-1 is a HD Camera Phone Satellite (PHONESAT) that will attempt to capture images of Space Shuttle Discovery as it leaves Earth for space. Multiple cameras and an on-board computer system will ensure that Discovery launch images will be captured during its ascent. Some of those photos will include logos for Quest For Stars, STS-133, Challenger Center, and Motorola. In addition, the payload contains a Motorola i290 mobile phone and a Garmin eTrex GPS system that is connected to a ham radio transmitter. The payload is designed to have multiple means of communication for backup purposes.

Live video of mission activities will also be streamed during the mission. This webcast can be watched at,, and at

Live video from the Robonaut-1 itself during flight will be available at

Updates during the mission including live tracking information during ascent and descent can be obtained by following or on Facebook at

See more information and images at

20 Million Observations by Amateur Astronomers!

Graph showing the rapidly growing number of observations in the AAVSO International Database. Courtesy AAVSO.

[/caption]Early into the celebration of its centennial year, observers of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) passed another milestone over the weekend, when an amateur astronomer from Belgium contributed the 20 millionth observation of a variable star on February 19, 2011.

Amateur astronomers have been recording changes in the brightness of stars for centuries. The world’s largest database is run by the AAVSO. Started in 1911, it is one of the oldest, continuously operating citizen science projects in the world.

“The long-term study of stellar brightness variation is critical to understanding how stars work and the impact they have on their surroundings. The noble efforts of the engaged AAVSO volunteers play an important role in astronomy and help expand human knowledge,” said Dr. Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer of the American Astronomical Society.

The AAVSO currently receives variable star brightness estimates from about 1,000 amateur astronomers per year. Some variable stars are bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye while others require high-tech equipment. The AAVSO also has a network of robotic telescopes available to members free of charge.

“Because some variable stars are unpredictable and/or change their brightness over long time scales, it is not practical for professional astronomers to watch them every night. Thus, amateurs were recruited to keep tabs on these stars on behalf of professionals,” Dr. Arne Henden, Director of the AAVSO, said.

The 20 millionth observation was made by Dr. Franz-Josef “Josch” Hambsch of Belgium. The observation was of GV Andromeda, member of a class of older, pulsating stars smaller than our Sun. “I like these stars because you can see their entire variation cycle in one night. There have not been many recent observations made of this particular star, so that is why I am monitoring it,” Hambsch said. Hambsch is also a member of the Belgian variable star organization, Vereniging Voor Sterrenkunde, Werkgroep Veranderlijke Sterren (VVS, WVS).

Actual light curve of GV And created from Josch Hambsh's data. One of these points is the 20 millionth observation! Courtesy AAVSO.

The process of estimating a star’s brightness can range from less than a minute to many hours per estimate, but typically takes about five minutes. At that rate, observers have invested the equivalent of about 1.67 million hours of time in collecting observations for the database. Assuming a current median salary of US$33,000, this would be the roughly equivalent to 27.5 million dollars worth of donated time if all the observations were reported today.

“The reality is these observations are invaluable. The database spans many generations and includes data that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. If an astronomer wants to know the history of a particular star, they come to the AAVSO,” Henden said.

The AAVSO’s mission is to coordinate, collect, and distribute variable star data to support scientific research and education. The AAVSO International Database is openly available to the public through their web site (, where it is queried hundreds of times per day.

Historic Opportunity for Students to Participate on “Extra” Shuttle Mission

Astronaut Jeffrey Williams doing plant cells vs. microgravity experiments aboard the ISS in December 2009. Credit: NASA


A new opportunity for students to be part of history and fly an experiment on what could be the last space shuttle mission has been announced by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) for the STS-135, the shuttle mission that might fly in June of 2011.

“We hope to get 50 communities and 100,000 students participating in the initiative which allows grade 5-14 student design of real experiments to fly aboard Atlantis, and engages entire communities,” Dr. Jeff Goldstein, the Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education told Universe Today. “This is very unique opportunity for students and teachers to be part of a high visibility, keystone U.S. national STEM education program of the highest caliber.”

SSEP is a new program that launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in partnership with NanoRacks, LLC, a company that is working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

The company hopes to stimulate space station research by providing a very low-cost 1 kilogram platform that puts micro-gravity projects within the reach of universities and small companies, as well as elementary and secondary schools through SSEP. So, this is actually a commercial space program and not a NASA program.

This opportunity offers real research done on orbit, with students designing and proposing the experiments to fly in low Earth orbit.

Goldstein said the program is a U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives up to 3,200 students across a community—middle and high school students (grades 5-12), and/or undergraduates at 2-year community colleges (grades 13-14)—the ability to fly their own experiments in low Earth orbit, first aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and then later on the International Space Station.

For the STS-134 mission, now scheduled to launch in April 2011, 16 communities were chosen to participate from 447 student team proposals. Goldstein said the 16 selected experiments are now moving through formal NASA Flight Safety review.

But the end of the shuttle mission is not the end of this program – instead it is just the beginning. “This is meant to be a gateway to Phase 2 of the program, which will allow routine access to space for students conducting experiments, said Goldstein. “SSEP was designed to engage and inspire America’s next generation of scientists and engineers through immersion in real science. We believe that ‘student as scientist’ represents the very best in science education.”

What type of experiments would be accepted? Students and teachers should discuss what biological, chemical or physical system they would like to explore with no gravity off for 10 days. Examples of experiments are seed germination cell biology, life cycles of organisms, food preservation, and crystal growth. The SSEP program will help guide the teachers through implementation of the program in their classrooms.

Each participating school district will be provided an experiment slot in an easy-to-use real microgravity research mini-laboratory flying on Space Shuttle Atlantis. The SSEP center will then guide the school districts through an experiment design competition within the grade 5-12 range, which can be conducted across a single school, or district-wide to as many as 3,200 students. Student teams then design real experiments vying for your reserved slot on this historic flight, with designs constrained by mini-laboratory operation.

Other benefits of the program include a customized Blog for students and teachers to report on their program, and a design competition for each school to have a 4-inch x 4-inch emblem that we will fly aboard the Shuttle and returned to the school.

There is uncertainty, however, whether the STS-135 mission will fly. Funding for the additional STS-135 mission was authorized by Congress on September 29, 2010, and the authorization was signed by President Obama. NASA is currently awaiting Congressional allocation of funds for STS-135. On January 20, 2011, NASA formally added STS-135 to its launch schedule. Goldstein said there is now a high probability that STS-135 will indeed fly. But when it flies is the issue.

Because of the timing of when NASA needs to have a list of material that will be used in the experiments so that they can do a flight safety review, the SSEP program needs NASA to slip the launch date from June 28, 2011 until at least August 31, 2011. They fully expect this to occur given the significant launch slips that have occurred for STS-133 and STS-134, and the conversations already taking place in NASA.

But it is now time critical for schools to be able to participate. There is a proposal submission deadline of May 12, 2011. By the end of May, the flight experiments will be selected, so that NASA can be provided with the materials list 3 months in advance of launch.

For more information see the SSEP website

Testimonials for SSEP on STS-134

Watch a video of Dr. Jeff Goldstein talking about SSEP.

Students Find Rare “Recycled” Pulsar

Alexander Snider and Hannah Mabry in GBT Control Room, Casey Thompson on-screen, during confirmation observation. CREDIT: NRAO/AUI/NSF


From a press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory:

In the constellation of Ophiuchus, above the disk of our Milky Way Galaxy, there lurks a stellar corpse spinning 30 times per second — an exotic star known as a radio pulsar. This object was unknown until it was discovered last week by three high school students. These students are 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).

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.”

Basics of a Pulsar CREDIT: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

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.

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that sling lighthouse beams of radio waves or light around as they spin. A neutron star is what is left after a massive star explodes at the end of its normal life. With no nuclear fuel left to produce energy to offset the stellar remnant’s weight, its material is compressed to extreme densities. The pressure squeezes together most of its protons and electrons to form neutrons; hence, the name neutron star. One tablespoon of material from a pulsar would weigh 10 million tons — as much as a supertanker.

The object that the students discovered is in a special class of pulsar that spins very fast – in this case, about 30 times per second, comparable to the speed of a kitchen blender.

“The big question we need to answer first is whether this is a young pulsar or a recycled pulsar,” said Maura McLaughlin, an astronomer at WVU. “A pulsar spinning that fast is very interesting as it could be newly born or it could be a very old, recycled pulsar.”

A recycled pulsar is one that was once in a binary system. Material from the companion star is deposited onto the pulsar, causing it to speed up, or be recycled. Mystery remains, however, about whether this pulsar has ever had a companion star.

If it did, “it may be that this pulsar had a massive companion that exploded in a supernova, disrupting its orbit,” McLaughlin said. Astronomers and students will work together in the coming months to find answers to these questions.

The PSC is a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The PSC, led by NRAO Education Officer Sue Ann Heatherly and Project Director Rachel Rosen, includes training for teachers and student leaders, and provides parcels of data from the GBT to student teams. The project involves teachers and students in helping astronomers analyze data from the GBT, a giant, 17-million-pound telescope.

Some 300 hours of observing data were reserved for analysis by student teams. Thompson, Snider, and Mabry have been working with about 170 other students across the country. The responsibility for the work, and for the discoveries, is theirs. They are trained by astronomers and by their teachers to distinguish between pulsars and noise. The students’ collective judgment sifts the pulsars from the noise.

All three students had analyzed thousands of data plots before coming upon this one. Casey Thompson, who has been with the PSC for three years, has analyzed more than 30,000 plots.

“Sometimes I just stop and think about the fact that I’m looking at data from space,” Thompson said. “It’s really special to me.”

In addition to this discovery, two other astronomical objects have been discovered by students. 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.

Those involved in the PSC hope that being a part of astronomy will give students an appreciation for science. Maybe the project will even produce some of the next generation of astronomers. Snider, surely, has been inspired.

“The PSC changed my career path,” confessed Thompson. “I’m going to study astrophysics.”
Snider is pleased with the idea of contributing to scientific knowledge. “I hope that astronomers at Green Bank and around the world can learn something from the discovery,” he said.

Mabry is simply awed. “We’ve actually been able to experience something,” she said.

The PSC will continue through 2011. Teachers interested in participating in the program can learn more at this link.

Become an Exoplanet Hunter With Newest Zooniverse Citizen Science Project

Artist's impression of an extrasolar planet. Image credit: CfA


You knew it was only a matter of time until the hunt for extrasolar planets joined the Zooniverse family of Citizen Science projects. And the time has now arrived for your chance to make one of the biggest discoveries of the 21st century by finding other planets out there in the Universe.

Planet Hunters is the latest addition to the Zooniverse, and users will help scientists analyze data taken by NASA’s Kepler mission, the biggest, badest exoplanet hunting telescope in space. The project goes live on December 16 at

“The Kepler mission has given us another mountain of data to sort through,” said Kevin Schawinski, a Yale University astronomer and Planet Hunters co-founder. Schawinski was one of the original forces behind Galaxy Zoo, the citizen science project that started it all back in 2007, which enlisted hundreds of thousands of Web users round the world to help sort through and classify a million images of galaxies taken by a robotic telescope.

The Kepler telescope has been in space since 2009, continually monitoring nearly 150,000 stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, recording their brightness over time. In June of this year, the Kepler team announced they had found over 750 exoplanet candidates in just the first 43 days of the spacecraft’s observations.

They also just announced they will make an early release of a complete 3 months of observations early in 2011, which will contain light curves for approximately 165,000 stars, most of which are late-type Main Sequence stars.

“The Kepler mission will likely quadruple the number of planets that have been found in the last 15 years, and it’s terrific that NASA is releasing this amazing data into the public domain,” said Debra Fischer, a Yale astronomer and leading exoplanet hunter.

Although Planet Hunters is not tied directly to the Kepler mission, the website will serve as a complement to the work being done by the Kepler team to analyze the data, the team said.

Granted, the Citizen Scientists looking for extrasolar planets will be doing a search akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. But its one of the most exciting needles to be searching for.

Because of the huge amount of data being made available by Kepler, astronomers rely on computers to help them sort through the data and search for possible planet candidates. “But computers are only good at finding what they’ve been taught to look for,” said Meg Schwamb, another Yale astronomer and Planet Hunters co-founder, “whereas the human brain has the uncanny ability to recognize patterns and immediately pick out what is strange or unique, far beyond what we can teach machines to do.”

Galaxy Zoo project has shown how successful this concept of using a network of global volunteers can be, as the Citizen Scientists has helped the Galaxy Zoo team publish over 20 papers about galaxy shapes and distributions, as well as making some unusual discoveries, like Hanny’s Voorwerp.

To participate, you don’t need to have any astronomical or exoplanet expertise. When users log on to the Planet Hunters website, they’ll be asked to answer a series of simple questions about one of the stars’ light curves — a graph displaying the amount of light emitted by the star over time — to help the Yale astronomers determine whether it displays a repetitive dimming of light, identifying it as an exoplanet candidate.

And exoplanet research is one of the hottest topics in astronomy today. Over 500 planets have been found orbiting other stars since 1995. Most of these are large, Jupiter-like planets, but astronomers are refining their searches to try and find smaller planets more the size of Earth.

“The search for planets is the search for life,” Fischer said. “And at least for life as we know it, that means finding a planet similar to Earth.” Scientists believe Earth-like planets are the best place to look for life because they are the right size and orbit their host stars at the right distance to support liquid water, an essential ingredient for every form of life found on Earth.

The point of citizen science is to actively involve people in real research,” Schawinski said. “When you join Planet Hunters, you’re contributing to actual science — and you might just make a real discovery.”

The Zooniverse is Expanding: The Milky Way Project Begins Today

The Milky Way Project allows anyone to help catalog bubbles and other interesting features in images taken from a robotic infrared survey. Image Credit: Spitzer/The Milky Way Project


From the folks that brought you the addictive citizen science projects Galaxy Zoo and Moon Zoo (among others), comes yet another way to explore our Universe and help out scientists at the same time. The Milky Way Project invites members of the public to look at images from infrared surveys of our Milky Way and flag features such as gas bubbles, knots of gas and dust and star clusters.

As with the other Zooniverse projects, the participation of the public is a core feature. Accompanying the Milky Way Project is a way for Zooniverse members – lovingly called “zooites” – to discuss the images they’ve cataloged. Called Milky Way Talk, users can submit images they find curious or just plain beautiful to the talk forum for discussion.

The Milky Way Project uses data from the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey (MIPSGAL). These two surveys have imaged the Milky Way in infrared light at different frequencies. GLIMPSE at 3.6, 4.5, 5.8, and 8 microns, and MIPSGAL at 24 and 70 microns. In the infrared, things that don’t emit much visible light – such as large gas clouds excited by stellar radiation – are apparent in images.

The new project aims at cataloging bubbles, star clusters, knots of gas and dark nebulae. All of these objects are interesting in their own ways.

Bubbles – large structures of gas in the galactic plane – belie areas where young stars are altering the interstellar medium that surrounds them. They heat up the dust and/or ionize the gas that surrounds them, and the flow of particles from the star pushes the diffuse material surrounding out into bubble shapes.

The green knots are where the gas and dust are more dense, and might be regions that contain stellar nurseries. Similarly, dark nebulae – nebulae that appear darker than the surrounding gas – are of interest to astronomers because they may also point to stellar formation of high-mass stars.

Star clusters and galaxies outside of the Milky Way may also be visible in some of the images. Though the cataloging of these objects isn’t the main focus of the project, zooites can flag them in the images for later discussion. Just like in the other Zooniverse projects, which use data from robotic surveys, there is always the chance that you will be the first person ever to look at something in one of the images. You could even be like Galaxy Zoo member Hanny and discover something that astronomers will spend telescope time looking at!

This image is full of objects that are interesting to astronomers for study. You can help them pick out which things to study. Image Credit: Spitzer/The Milky Way Project

The GLIMPSE-MIPSGAL surveys were performed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Over 440,000 images – all taken in the infrared – are in the catalog and need to be sifted through. This is a serious undertaking, one that cannot be accomplished by graduate students in astronomy alone.

In cataloging these bubbles for subsequent analysis, Milky Way Project members can help astronomers understand both the interstellar medium and the stars themselves imaged by the survey. It will also help them to make a map of the Milky Way’s stellar formation regions.

As with the other Zooniverse projects, this newest addition relies on the human brain’s ability to pick out patterns. Diffuse or oddly-shaped bubbles – such as those that appear “popped” or are elliptical – are difficult for a computer to analyze. So, it’s up to willing members of the public to help out the astronomy community. The Zooniverse community boasts over 350,000 members participating in their various projects.

A little cataloging and research of these gas bubbles has already been done by researchers. The Milky Way Project site references work by Churchwell, et. al, who cataloged over 600 of the bubbles and discovered that 75% of the bubbles they looked at were created by type B4-B9 stars, while 0-B3 stars make up the remainder (for more on what these stellar types mean, click here).

A zoomable map that uses images from the surveys – and has labeled a lot of the bubbles that have been already cataloged by the researchers- is available at Alien Earths.

For an extensive treatment of just how important these bubbles are to understanding stars and their formation, the paper “IR Dust Bubbles: Probing the Detailed Structure and Young Massive Stellar Populations of Galactic HII Regions” by Watson, et. al is available here.

If you want to get cracking on drawing bubbles and cataloging interesting features of our Milky Way, take the tutorial and sign up today.

Sources: The Milky Way Project, Arxiv, GLIMPSE

Galaxy Zoo Searches for Supernovae

Aside from categorizing galaxies, another component of the Galaxy Zoo project has been asking participants to identify potential supernovae (SNe). The first results are out and have identified “nearly 14,000 supernova candidates from [Palomar Transient Factory, (PTF)] were classified by more than 2,500 individuals within a few hours of data collection.”

Although the Galaxy Zoo project is the first to employ citizens as supernova spotters, the background programs have long been in place but were generating vast amounts of data to be processed. “The Supernova Legacy Survey used the MegaCam instrument on the 3.6m Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope to survey 4 deg2” every few days, in which “each square degree would typically generate ~200 candidates for each night of observation.” Additionallly, “[t]he Sloan Digital Sky Survey-II Supernova Survey used the SDSS 2.5m telescope to survey a larger area of 300 deg2” and “human scanners viewed 3000-5000 objects each night spread over six scanners”.

To ease this burden, the highly successful Galaxy Zoo implemented a Supernova Search in which users would be directed through a decision tree to help them determine what computer algorithms were proposing as transient events. Each image would be viewed and decided on by several participants increasing the likelihood of a correct appraisal. Also, “with a large number of people scanning candidates, more candidates can be examined in a shorter amount of time – and with the global Zooniverse (the parent project of Galaxy Zoo) user base this can be done around the clock, regardless of the local time zone the science team happens to be based in” allowing for “interesting candidates to be followed up on the same night as that of the SNe discovery, of particular interest to quickly evolving SNe or transient sources.”

To identify candidates for viewing, images are taken using the 48 inch Samuel Oschin telescope at the
Palomar Observatory. Images are then calibrated to correct instrumental noise and compared automatically to reference images. Those in which an object appears with a change greater than five standard deviations from the general noise are flagged for inspection. While it may seem that this high threshold would eliminate other events, the Supernova Legacy Survey, starting with 200 candidates per night, would only end up identifying ~20 strong candidates. As such, nearly 90% of these computer generated identifications were spurious, likely generated by cosmic rays striking the detector, objects within our own solar system, or other such nuisances and demonstrating the need for human analysis.

Still, the PTF identifies between 300 and 500 candidates each night of operation. When exported to the Galaxy Zoo interface, users are presented with three images: The first is the old, reference image. The second is the recent image, and the third is the difference between the two, with brightness values subtracted pixel for pixel. Stars which didn’t change brightness would be subtracted to nothing, but those with a large change (such as a supernova), would register as a still noticeable star.

Of course, this method is not flawless, which also contributes to the false positives from the computer system that the decision tree helps weed out. The first question (Is there a candidate centered in the crosshairs of the right-hand [subtracted] image?) eliminates misprocessing by the algorithm due to misalignment. The second question (Has the candidate itself subtracted correctly?) serves to drop stars that were so bright, they saturated the CCD, causing odd errors often resulting in a “bullseye” pattern. Third (Is the candidate star-like and approximately circular?), users eliminate cosmic ray strikes which generally only fill one or two pixels or leave long trails (depending on the angle at which they strike the CCD). Lastly, users are asked if “the candidate centered in a circular host galaxy?” This sets aside identifications of variable stars within our own galaxy that are not events in other galaxies as well as supernovae that appear in the outskirts of their host galaxies.

Each of these questions is assigned a number of positive or negative “points” to give an overall score for the identification. The higher the score, the more likely it is to be a true supernova. With the way the structure is set up, “candidates can only end up with a score of -1, 1 or 3 from each classification, with the most promising SN candidates scored 3.” If enough users rank an event with the appropriate score, the event is added to a daily subscription sent out to interested parties.

To confirm the reliability of identifications, the top 20 candidates were followed up spectroscopically with the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope. Of them, 15 were confirmed as SNe, with 1 cataclysmic variable, and 4 remain unknown. When compared to followup observations from the PTF team, the Galaxy Zoo correctly identified 93% of supernova that were confirmed spectroscopically from them. Thus, the identification is strong and this large volume of known events will certainly help astronomers learn more about these events in the future.

If you’d like to join, head over to their website and register. Presently, all supernovae candidates have been processed, but the next observing run is coming up soon!

PSA: Bars Kill Galaxies

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 6217
Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 6217


Many spiral galaxies are known to harbor bars. Not the sort in which liquor is served as a social lubricant, but rather, the kind in which gas is served to the central regions of a galaxy. But just as recent studies have identified alcohol as one of the most risky drugs, a new study using results from the Galaxy Zoo 2 project have indicated galactic bars may be associated with dead galaxies as well.

The Galaxy Zoo 2 project is the continuation of the original Galaxy Zoo. Whereas the original project asked participants to categorize galaxies into Hubble Classifications, the continuation adds the additional layer of prompting users to provide further classification including whether or not the nearly quarter of a million galaxies showed the presence of a bar. While relying on only quickly trained volunteers may seem like a risky venture, the percentage of galaxies reported to have bars (about 30%) was in good agreement with previous studies using more rigorous methods.

The new study, led by Karen Masters of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, analyzed the presence or lack of bars in relation to other variables, such as “colour, luminosity, and estimates of the bulge size, or prominence.” When looking to see if the percent of galaxies with bars evolved over the redshifts observed, the team found no evidence that this had changed in the sample (the GZ2 project contains galaxies to a lookback time of ~6 billion years).

When comparing the fraction with bars to the overall color of the galaxy, the team saw strong trends. In blue galaxies (which have more ongoing star formation) only about 20% of galaxies contained bars. Meanwhile, red galaxies (which contain more older stars) had as many as 50% of their members hosting bars. Even more striking, when the sample was further broken down into grouping by overall galaxy brightness, the team found that dimmer red galaxies were even more likely to harbor bars, peaking at ~70%!

Before considering the possible implications, the team stopped to consider whether or not there was some inherent biasing in the selection based on color. Perhaps bars just stood out more in red galaxies and the ongoing star formation in blue galaxies managed to hide their presence? The team referenced previous studies that determined visual identification for the presence of bars was not hindered in the wavelengths presented and only dipped in the ultraviolet regime which was not presented. Thus, the conclusion was deemed safe.

While the findings don’t establish a causal relationship, the connection is still apparent: If a galaxy has a bar, it is more likely to lack ongoing star formation. This discovery could help astronomers understand how bars form in the first place. Given both structure, such as bars and spiral arms, and star formation are associated with galactic interactions, the expectation would be that we should observe more bars in galaxies in which interactions have caused them to form as well as triggering star formation. As such, this study helps to constrain modes of bar formation. Another possible connection is the ability of bars to assist in movement of gas, potentially shuttling and shielding it from being accessible for formation. As Masters states, “It’s not yet clear whether the bars are some side effect of an external process that turns spiral galaxies red, or if they alone can cause this transformation. We should get closer to answering that question with more work on the Galaxy Zoo dataset.”

What Hanny’s Voorwerp Reveals About Quasar Deaths

The green "blob" is Hanny's Voorwerp. Credit: Dan Herbert, Peter Smith, Matt Jarvis, Galaxy Zoo Team, Isaac Newton Telescope


Hanny’s Voorwerp is a popular topic of conversation due to its novel discovery by Hanny Van Arkel perusing images from the Galaxy Zoo project. The tale has become so well known, it was made into a comic book (view here as .pdf, 35MB). But another aspect of the story is how enigmatic the object is. Objects that are so green are rare and it lacked a direct power source to energize it. It was eventually realized a quasar in the neighboring galaxy, IC 2497 could supply the necessary energy. Yet images of the galaxy couldn’t confirm a sufficiently energetic quasar. A new paper discusses what may have happened to the source.

The evidence that a quasar must be involved comes from the green color of the voorwerp itself. Spectra of the object has shown that this coloration is due to a strong level of ionized oxygen, specifically the λ5007 line of O III. While other scenarios could account for this feature alone, the spectra also contained He II emission as well as Ne V and the lines were especially narrow. Should star formation or shockwaves energize the gas, the motions would cause Doppler broadening. An quasar powered Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) was the best fit.

But when telescopes searched for this quasar in the galaxy, it proved elusive. Optical images from WIYN Observatory were unable to resolve the expected point source. Radio observations discovered an object emitting in this range, but far below the amount of energy necessary to power the luminous Voorwerp. Two solutions have been proposed:

“1) the quasar in IC 2497 features a novel geometry of obscuring material and is obscured at an unprecedented level only along our line of sight, while being virtually unobscured towards the Voorwerp; or 2) the quasar in IC 2497 has shut down within the last 70,000 years, while the Voorwerp remains lit up due to the light travel time from the nucleus.”

Recent observations from Suzaku have ruled out the first of these possibilities due to the lack of potassium absorption that would be expected if light from the galaxy were being absorbed in a significant amount. Thus, the conclusion is that the AGN has dropped in total output by at least two orders of magnitude, but more likely by four. In many ways, this is not entirely unexpected since quasars are plentiful in the distant universe where raw material on which to feed was more plentiful. In the present universe, quasars rarely have such material available and can’t maintain it indefinitely.

Analogs exist within our own galaxy. X-Ray Binaries (XRBs) are stellar mass black holes which form similar accretion disks and can shut down and excite on short timescales (~1 year). The authors of the new paper attempted to scale up a model XRB system to determine if the timescales would fit with the ~70,000 year upper limit imposed by the travel time. While they found a good agreement with the output from direct accretion itself (10,000–100,000 years) the team found a discrepancy in the disk. In XRBs, the material around the black hole is heated as well, and takes some time to cool down. In this case, the core of the galaxy should still retain a hot disc of material which isn’t present.

This oddity demonstrates that there is still a large amount of knowledge to be gained on the physics surrounding these objects. Fortunately, the relatively close proximity of IC 2497 allows for the potential for detailed followup studies.

Virtual Observatory Discovers New Cataclysmic Variable

Simulation of Intermediate Polar CV star
Simulation of Intermediate Polar CV star (Dr Andy Beardmore, Keele University)


In my article two weeks ago, I discussed how data mining large surveys through online observatories would lead to new discoveries. Sure enough, a pair of astronomers, Ivan Zolotukhin and Igor Chilingarian using data from the Virtual Observatory, has announced the discovery of a cataclysmic variable (CV).

Cataclysmic variables are often called “novae”. However, they’re not a single star. These stars are actually binary systems in which their interactions cause large increases in brightness as matter is accreted from a secondary (usually post main-sequence) star, onto a white dwarf. The accretion of matter piles up on the surface until the it reaches a critical density and undergoes a brief but intense phase of fusion increasing the brightness of the star considerably. Unlike type Ia supernovae, this explosion doesn’t meet the critical density required to cause a core collapse.

The team began by considering a list of 107 objects from the Galactic Plane Survey conducted by the Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA, a Japanese satellite operating in the x-ray regime). These objects were exceptional x-ray emitters that had not yet been classified. While other astronomers have done targeted investigations of individual objects requiring new telescope time, this team attempted to determine whether any of the odd objects were CVs using readily available data from the Virtual Observatory.

Since the objects were all strong x-ray sources, they all met at least one criteria of being a CV. Another was that CV stars often are strong emitters for Hα since the eruptions often eject hot hydrogen gas. To analyze whether or not any of the objects were emitters in this regime, the astronomers cross referenced the list of objects with data from the Isaac Newton Telescope Photometric Hα Survey of the northern Galactic plane (IPHAS) using a color-color diagram. In the field of view of the IPHAS survey that overlapped with the region from the ASCA image for one of the objects, the team found an object that emitted strongly in the Hα. But in such a dense field and with such different wavelength regimes, it was difficult to identify the objects as the same one.

To assist in determining if the two interesting objects were indeed the same, or whether they just happened to lie nearby, the pair turned to data from Chandra. Since Chandra has much smaller uncertainty in the positioning (0.6 arcsecs), the pair was able to identify the object and determine that the interesting object from IPHAS was indeed the same one from the ASCA survey.

Thus, the object passed the two tests the team had devised for finding cataclysmic variables. At this point, followup observation was warranted. The astronomers used the 3.5-m Calar Alto telescope to conduct spectroscopic observations and confirmed that the star was indeed a CV. In particular, it looked to be a subclass in which the primary white dwarf star had a strong enough magnetic field to disrupt the accretion disk and the point of contact is actually over the poles of the star (this is known as a intermediate polar CV).

This discovery is an example of how discoveries are just waiting to happen with data that’s already available and sitting in archives, waiting to be explored. Much of this data is even available to the public and can be mined by anyone with the proper computer programs and know-how. Undoubtedly, as organization of these storehouses of data becomes organized in more user friendly manners, additional discoveries will be made in such a manner.