Students at West Virginia University have looked to the skies and discovered six pulsars.

Pulsars are the remnants of massive stars that have exploded in supernovae. They emit radio waves from their magnetic poles and, as they rotate with periods as fast as milliseconds, are seen by radio telescopes as celestial lighthouses.

Physics major Antonia Orsini, Tyler Matheny and Andrew Shaw discovered the pulsars using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, W.Va.

They are part of a collaboration of researchers in the United States and Canada, including WVU professors Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer, collecting data with the Green Bank Telescope to search for pulsars. The students must sift through a large amount of radio telescope data to hunt out pulsars and separate them from man-made radio waves and other phenomena.

“There are certain signs you look for – indicators that what you’re looking at is a real pulsar and not just interference – when you’re looking at the plots, and you suddenly see these in a new plot … it’s a true rush,” Orsini said. “Knowing that you’re the person who found that particular pulsar in the complete vastness of space an incomprehensible distance away from Earth is honestly mind boggling.”

Ryan Lynch, a staff scientist at Green Bank and adjunct faculty at WVU, is leading the Pulsar Ambassadors program at WVU that has involved these students. “It’s a really great way for students to get involved,” Lynch said. “Hopefully this leads to more advanced things, like actually using these pulsars as tools to learn about neutron stars, or gravity, or to develop more sophisticated methods of data analysis.”

Shaw and Matheny each discovered one of the six pulsars and Orsini discovered four. Roughly 2,300 pulsars have been found in total since the first was discovered in 1967. The students traveled to the Arecibo Observatory in March 2015 with professor McLaughlin to attend a pulsar workshop with professional astronomers and students from other universities.

“It was a great feeling discovering a star that no one had ever seen before,” Shaw said. “I grew up watching science and astrophysics shows on the History Channel, so I think it’s fair to say I’ve always been interested in working with stars. Everyone has that one thing they love; pulsars are mine.”

“They’re the first people, ever, to know about the existence of these pulsars,” Lynch said. “That’s an incredible thing to take with them for the rest of their life.”



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