365daysDate: September 18, 2009

Title: Pulsar Search Collaboratory


Podcaster: Sue Ann Heatherly from NRAO

Organization: NRAO: http://www.gb.nrao.edu/

Description: Join Lucas Bolyard, a sophomore at a small high school in West Virginia, and Rachel Rosen, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to learn about the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, an NSF funded program that enables high school students to get interested in science and technology careers while they search their own data for new pulsars. Tune in. We have an announcement to make!

Bio: Sue Ann Heatherly is the Education Officer at the NRAO Green Bank WV site. She comes to astronomy by way of biology (BA in 1981), and science education (MA in 1985) She visited the Observatory as a teacher in 1987 and knew she’d found Camelot. She has been employed with the NRAO since 1989.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, celebrating Five Decades of Training Young Scientists through summer programs. Explore the hidden universe in radio at www.nrao.edu.


Pulsar Search Collaboratory
Dr. Rachel Rosen
Lucas Bolyard

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: Welcome to this edition of 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts. My name is Sue Ann Heatherly. I work for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, and I’m going to be your host for this edition.

Today’s podcast is all about pulsars, and a program called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. As you may already know from tuning into some of the previous 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts, pulsars are stellar corpses. When stars more massive than our Sun go supernova, a super dense core is created, composed mostly of neutrons. These objects have super strong magnetic fields, too, and rotate. Some can rotate about once per second, while others can rotate nearly a thousand times per second. Radio telescopes have discovered the most pulsars, because they emit lighthouse-like beams of radio waves. As the neutron stars spin, we observe these beams as they sweep by the Earth. Because the spin rates of pulsars are incredibly predictable, astronomers can use pulsars to study things like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Pulsars have been used indirectly to detect gravitational radiation. And, one day, astronomers hope to directly detect gravitational waves using pulsars. This is one of the many reasons we need to find more of them. The Pulsar Search Collaboratory is a program that does just that.

Joining us today is Dr. Rachel Rosen. Dr. Rosen is the project director for an NSF-funded project called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. So, welcome to the program, Rachel. Thanks for joining us today.

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: Thank you.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: So, tell us, first of all, what the Pulsar Search Collaboratory is. That’s a mouth full.

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: The Pulsar Search Collaboratory is a program funded by the National Science Foundation that is designed to engage students in actual scientific astronomical research. Uh, we’re working with kids in West Virginia and in other states. They get to actually look through data that has never been looked through before to look for new pulsars.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: So, how is it that this data happened to be that these students get a chance to look through it for new pulsars? Tell us that story.

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: In 2007 the Green Bank Telescope, which is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, had to go under repairs for a track replacement, and during this time the telescope wasn’t able to move in any direction; and which is usually bad for most astronomers, but for us it turned out to be a good thing. Because we kept the telescope immobilized, and as the sky drifted overhead, we just collected a lot of data. And some of this data went to the astronomical community to look for new pulsars. And we, in addition, got some data for high school students.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: This data that was collected over the summer, while the GBT track was being replaced, how much of it is there?

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: We got about three hundred hours worth of data, which translates to about thirty terabytes worth of data. Uh, and then, in addition, we are collecting more data as well. So, this is an active project, and so we’re continually adding more data that students can look through.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: Well, tell us about your role as the project director. What do you do to make the Pulsar Search Collaboratory happen?

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: Most of what I do is, I interact with the students and the teachers on a regular basis. Uh, these . . . we . . . the teachers and the students come to Green Bank for the summer. The teachers come for two weeks, and then an additional third week with their students, and we teach them all about pulsars and why we think they’re fun and interesting things to study, and then they go back to their schools and they form teams to look through this data to look for new pulsars. As the program director, I interact with the teachers and the students, and anytime the students find anything interesting, we talk about it, we have discussions, we have online classes, uh, we do follow-up observations of any potentially interesting things that students find.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: So, you are their ask-an-astronomer astronomer; is that right?


SUE ANN HEATHERLY: What kinds of questions do you get?

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: Uh, I get lots of questions about, uh, RFI, which is radio frequency interference, and how it affects our data. Uh, I get questions about how the telescope works and how we collect the data, and how we, uh, turn this, the signals that we receive from space, into something the students can analyze.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: Do you find that these students are actually capable of analyzing this data and, uh, finding new pulsars?

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: Absolutely. They come to Green Bank and we go and visit the schools, and the students just get a wonderful grasp of what they’re looking at, and they are understanding the science behind the plots that they’re looking at.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: How many students are involved, and have any of them found a pulsar yet?

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: The program has been going on for one year, and we have, uh, over a hundred active students involved. Uh, we’re about to start a second year, and more students would become involved then, as well. And one student has found a astronomical detection . . . uh . . . of some kind of transient signal coming from outer space. We’re very excited about that.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: Looming on the horizon, how many detections do you expect students to make? How many discoveries could they make?

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: Uh. . .we expect in, uh, the data, the . . .the original data that was taken – to find at least ten pulsars. We have no idea how many transient objects they could find. There could be many more than that. And there could be potentially more pulsars in the new data that we’re collecting as well.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: Very, very cool. Thanks so much for joining us today, Rachel.

DR. RACHEL ROSEN: Absolutely. I’m glad to be here.

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: We take a break here and travel to South Harrison High School to talk with Lucas Bolyard, a sophomore, who made this discovery. I asked him to tell the story of how he discovered an astronomical object in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory data and how it made him feel.

LUCAS BOLYARD: We go to Pulsar Search Collaboratory dot com and, uh, we look at the different, uh, data plots that the GBT took while it was down for maintenance. I’ve looked at, roughly, about sixty or seventy plots. It was in March. And I was at home, actually. It was on the weekend. And. . .I. . .I didn’t really have anything to do, so I thought, “Hey, I’ll just get online and see if I can’t find a pulsar. I got on, looked through a data set; didn’t really see anything. But then I got to the single pulse plots and saw a plot that looked like it might be a pulsar, but it had a lot of RFI. So, I reported it to Rachel and Dr. McLaughlin. It, it almost got dismissed as, as just RFI, but, uh, then, Maura thought it looked pretty good, and there was a pulsar in with the RFI.

We waited a few months, and uh. . .and we finally got time on the GBT, and we did follow-up observations, which didn’t show anything. So, at that time, I was getting kind of worried. But then I learned about something called an “RRAT,” which is basically a pulsar that turns kind of on and off for short periods of time. Dr. McLaughlin said that that would explain why we haven’t been seeing it.

And in July I was actually on site at the GBT for a Pulsar Collaboratory workshop, and I think it was on Wednesday morning. Duncan came into the room and, uh, asked me if this plot reminded me of something. And he held up my plot and, uh, I said, “Yeah, that’s the pl. . .that’s the plot I found in, uh. . .in March.” And he said, “Well, here’s” – well, we went back and looked at the raw data – “and here’s the raw data.” And you could see that there was something in the raw data which confirmed that it definitely was something. I was excited, and I was really tired, because the night before we got time on the GBT. But that just kind of made me get full of energy and. . .uh, well, my, my family was really excited for me. I tried to explain it to them, but they didn’t understand what it is that they’re excited for me anyway. My friends were really excited, because they think I’m going to be famous and everything.

As of a year ago, I wouldn’t have even thought about wanting to become an astronomer, but this has kind of given me second thoughts. Making this discovery has made me very excited to get into a scientific field. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.

Getting to use the world’s largest, uh, fully movable telescope was really exciting. We had to wake up at about two o’clock in the morning to use the. . .to use the Green Bank Telescope, because that was when our time was. And by the time we were finished, it was probably about 3:30. So, we went to sleep and got up at seven o’clock in the morning. And that was the morning before I figured out that I had discovered the pulsar. It made me feel really good about myself, because I thought, “Hey, I discovered something this big; it’s. . .it’s a big deal.”

SUE ANN HEATHERLY: I think we’d all agree with that. It is a big deal. That was Lucas Bolyard, a sophomore at South Harrison High School in Harrison County, West Virginia. You can learn more about his discovery later this month when the official press release comes out, but, for now, let it be known that you all are the first to hear of Lucas Bolyard’s discovery of a rotating radio transient object in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory data.

That wraps up our show for today. Thanks so much for joining us.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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