Student Helps Map Out the Sky with New Galaxy Discovery

Posted: January 25, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Not many undergraduate students can say that they’ve observed data on the world’s largest radio telescope. Even fewer can say that they themselves discovered a brand-new galaxy.

Mason junior Lisa Horne has both those accomplishments under her belt.

Horne, who has been working with assistant professor Jessica Rosenberg as part of the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program at Mason, is part of a select group of undergraduate students involved in the Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA (ALFALFA) Survey team — a major national project looking to map the sky.

Last summer, Horne and Rosenberg traveled to Cornell University, where Horne was trained to analyze data pulled from the Arecibo telescope — the world’s largest radio telescope — located in Puerto Rico.

It was during this trip to Cornell that she discovered a blip in the data that was not already identified. Using the knowledge she gained, she was able to recognize that blip for what it was — a galaxy. Although she doesn’t get to name it (the galaxy is recorded as AGC #310842), under the record is “Lisa H.,” giving credit where credit is due.

“This program is a really great experience for Lisa,” says Rosenberg. “She gets to see the whole process and really be a part of this larger scientific survey. The idea behind the undergraduate component to ALFALFA is to keep students interested so they’ll continue on their career path.”

Earlier this month, Horne and Rosenberg traveled to Puerto Rico where they had hands-on experience working at Arecibo. Horne learned about the instruments on the telescope and the different types of sciences that can be performed there. She attended lectures about the telescope and the ALFALFA project, and several students also gave talks about their research. Horne presented a poster about her work as well.

The most exciting part of the trip, Horne said, was getting to work with the actual telescope. The undergraduates at the seminar each had scheduled shifts when they could go to observe the telescope in action.

Lisa Horne at Arecibo
Lisa Horne at Arecibo
Photo courtesy of Lisa Horne

“My shift was from 2:20 to 3:20 a.m., but I was so excited to see the data-taking process that I didn’t mind the early hours,” she said. “We were able to get really up close and personal with the instruments in the Gregorian Dome and go under the huge reflecting dish.”

In addition to gaining scientific knowledge, Horne also gained some insight into the politics behind the funding of science projects. She is particularly concerned about the possibility that the Arecibo facility will be shut down in the near future due to a lack of funding.

“It’s a real shame because Arecibo is still the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the world. To shut it down would be a huge loss to the science community.”

Horne hopes to continue her work with ALFALFA throughout the semester.

“It was the coolest experience of my life so far,” says Horne. “I really enjoyed getting to meet other people my age with a strong interest in astronomy. Those people might very well be my colleagues one day.”

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