Schoolboy spies special star

The Robert C Byrd Green Bank Telescope is an enormous dish, 110 by 100 metres in size. It observes the skies in radio wavelengths and does so by spinning round on its track and wheel to point directly at anywhere in the sky. However in 2007, the track needed to be fixed, but not to fear, the scientists didn’t put the telescope to waste during this time. With it stuck observing a fixed point of the sky, it was simply turned on and left to view. It accrued fifteen hundred hours worth of useful data. Useful because in there might be radio sources called pulsars that hadn’t been spotted before. Pulsars are very dense neutron stars that spin rapidly. They have magnetic fields along which particles called electrons run, emitted radiation along the field lines as they do so. This radiation beams out from the pulsars like the light on a lighthouse as it spins. As a result, they are seen as regular radio pulses in the night sky.

The 120 terabytes of data gathered in the survey were a little too much for a scientist hoping to get some nights off to analyse themselves. Therefore they created a citizen science project called Pulsar Search Collaboratory, which allows US schoolchildren to deal with three hundred hours of the data instead, teaching them about analysis of scientific data and the identification of man-made interference.

One such student, Lucas Bolyard, spent quite some time looking through the data and found something – a pulsar like signal. Follow up observations showed there was nothing around in the sky where the pulse came from, however suspicions grew that this might be an example of an unusual type of pulsar. In 2006, a new type of pulsar called a radio transient had been discovered. This was a pulsar that switched off and on. Reprocessing of the data to eliminate possible sources of interference showed that the signal was real and most likely one of only thirty such objects so far identified.

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