A program at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas County is helping spark student interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers.
The observatory is home to the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. It’s the largest movable radio telescope in the world and weighs around 16-million pounds.
In the summer of 2007, the telescope needed to undergo repairs, immobilizing it for about three months. During that time, the telescope continued to record hundreds of hours worth of data.
“Three-hundred hours is set aside for the students and this is data just for the students. As an astronomer I’m not allowed to look through the data. Our teachers that participate in this program are not allowed to look through this data and we have no idea what is in this data. We encourage high school students to look for pulsars,” said Rachel Rosen, project director of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory.
A pulsar is a “leftover” or remnant of a super nova explosion. The ball of neutrons is so small, we can’t see it with the naked eye but the pulsar’s magnetic poles give off radio waves, which we can detect with a radio telescope.
“Some of them rotate thousands of time per second so they can be faster than a kitchen blender. They can be very precise, as precise as an atomic clocks and because of their precision and they are scattered throughout the sky, they make really good tests of Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” said Rosen.
There are about 1,800 known pulsars scattered throughout the sky in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
The Pulsar Search Collaboratory is a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and West Virginia University (WVU).
The images and data from the telescope are first processed at WVU to help increase a student’s chance of making a discovery.
“The computer makes literally thousands of guesses of how fast the pulsar is spinning, if there is a pulsar there and how far away it would be and then of all of these thousands of different guesses, we take the 30 best guesses and make diagnostic plots of them and these are these plots that the students look at ,” said Rosen.
Students and teachers are trained how to analyze the plots and graphs during a three week workshop at the observatory in Green Bank . Teachers learn about radio astronomy, man-made radio waves that can interfere with the telescope, what pulsars are and how to search for them.
During the third week, the teachers return with their students for training. They recruit other students and form teams at their schools.
Shay Bloxton, a junior at Nicholas County High School uses her computer at home and free class periods at school to sift through the data. In October 2009, she discovered an unknown pulsar.
“I found something that looked odd and it was like a strong signal and I reported it to Rachael and they definitely thought it looked like a pulsar. We went back and looked at it through the GBT and I was really excited. I couldn’t believe I actually found one,” said Bloxton.
A few other students have found known pulsars or objects in the telescope’s data.
Bloxton said the experience was the first time she got to do a real hands-on science project at school.
Forty-one high schools in nine states participate in the pulsar program. Eighteen are in West Virginia . Other states include Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland.
A student or teacher only needs a computer and Internet access to use the pulsar program.
The goal of the program is to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and math careers by exposing them to cutting-edge science research.
“ We tend to reach a lot of first generation college goers. Probably one of our biggest successes from an educational standpoint is that we see huge gains in girls, where they come to our program feeling insecure or unsure of their ability to do science and to collaborate with scientists and to work on teams and conduct true scientific research and after participating in our program we see a huge change in their confidence,” said Rosen.
Bloxton said the experience is helping her graduate a year early. She plans to major in physics at WVU and eventually become an astrophysicist.
For more information on the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank