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San Jose State students report major discovery in space

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A win for open data in science! With raw materials from the Hubble Space Telescope and their laptops, two undergrads from San Jose State have discovered two new astronomical phenomena.

Great find, and a great story:

A San Jose State undergrad grieving the loss of his mother shifted his gaze to outer space and made what could prove to be a remarkable discovery: a system of stars so dense, his professor said, astronomy has no word for it.

In only a week 21-year-old Michael Sandoval stumbled upon what he and his professor have named a hypercompact cluster, which they argue is the intensely starry remains of one galaxy that has been consumed by another.

Astrophysics professor Aaron Romanowsky said it's astounding how quickly his student may have discovered what "some people take years and never find."

The value of free, publicly available data:

With free, publicly available data from the Hubble Space Telescope archive and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Sandoval set to work on his laptop, combing the universe using some of Vo's research methods. "I didn't want to be sitting home, feeling sorry for myself," said Sandoval, the youngest of two brothers who both took care of their mother after her diagnosis. "That's not what she would have wanted anyway."


Their discoveries, though yet to be reviewed by other scientists, reveal what's possible today in undergraduate science education, particularly at teaching universities like San Jose State that don't have fancy equipment or massive research budgets, Romanowsky said.

One reason a pair of undergraduates might have pulled off this feat is that until recently, astronomers simply weren't looking for these dense stellar systems.

"It's something that's been hiding in plain sight," Romanowsky said.

If verified, their research could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe -- and of the black holes within galaxies, which have a gravitational pull so powerful they are thought to trap light, making them difficult to spot.

Both students were so passionate about the project, Romanowsky said, that they were pushing him, not the other way around. "They're sending me emails at midnight: 'Professor, will you send me more data?'" he said.

Experiences like theirs could bring more students into the sciences, said Natalie Batalha, a research astronomer at NASA Ames Research Center. Glimpsing something no human has ever seen feels like "all the mysteries of the universe are right there for us to discover," she said.

"Not very many young people are choosing to pursue scientific careers," she added, "and I wonder how much of that is because of stereotypes and a poor understanding of what it means to be a scientist."

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