Green Bank Telescope
1:32 pm
Wed January 15, 2014

WVU astronomer calls new discovery 'a puzzle'

This graphic gives a look at what this new triple star system looks like.
Credit West Virginia University

There’s an ongoing debate over whether funding will be able to continue for the Green Bank telescope in Pocahontas County. But the telescope is still making remarkable astronomical discoveries, including one that’s being called a “puzzle” by West Virginia University astronomers.

There’s a very unique star formation in the Milky Way galaxy that until recently was never discovered. It’s known as a triple star system—two white dwarf stars, and a pulsar. A pulsar is a star that gives off radio waves. White dwarf stars are very dense, some as massive as our sun, and they have stored thermal energy. This particular grouping is somewhat rare, according to West Virginia University physics professor Duncan Lorimer.

"It’s something of a mystery as to how it’s formed; we’re quite used to the idea of pulsars being the end products of supernova explosions. We’re comfortable with the objects being isolated and moving about the Milky Way," he said.

This triple stellar system, where you have two white dwarf stars, is somewhat of a puzzle as to how it got there. The objects are very organized; they are all essentially on the same plane. A special set of circumstances must have occurred to produce this system. It’s probably very very rare.

But Lorimer says there are clues to help researchers track the system’s origin.

"The way we think about this is essentially, the pulsar is a clock in space. It’s sending out these regular pulses we receive. We can use it to monitor its position in the orbit, and determine to high precision, many orbital parameters," said Lorimer.

"It’s a one of a kind system."

The significance of this discovery is that its allowing researchers to test a scientific principle known as the Strong Equivalence Principle.

This system was discovered by a former West Virginia University student, who is now a faculty member at Western Kentucky University.

The tool used to make this important discovery is the Green Bank Telescope. Funding for the telescope is in doubt, due to the nation’s financial struggles.

Lorimer says the telescope is a vital tool in how astronomers are able to look at the universe. He fears without it, more important discoveries like this one can’t be made.

"This is not by no means the only example of what the GBT has done over the last few years. Just the pulsar finds alone! It has a whole slew of very other interesting scientific questions that it’s answering in a unique way. I’m very concerned that the future of the telescope is uncertain. The telescope is potentially getting cut off well before it’s time," Lorimer said.

Karen O' Neil is the site director at Green Bank. She says the facility is an open skies facility, where any astronomer from around the world can apply for time to get on the telescope.

She says when astronomers make discoveries at the telescope, there’s a little bit of luck involved. But mostly it’s hard work. And the telescope itself—which is the largest fully steerable telescope in the world—certainly helps.

"Could this discovery have been made without the GBT- possibly. But did the GBT make this discovery vastly more likely, absolutely," she said.

O’ Neil says this particular discovery was made while astronomers were looking for related systems, but didn’t expect to find this particular one.