Discovering a major celestial event in decades-old data would be a big deal for even a seasoned astronomer. But what if you're barely old enough to drive?
Here's the nerdy explanation of what happened:
Ravi and his team, including two graduate students at Caltech, have now discovered what appears to be one of these black-hole-eating-a-star events—also known as tidal disruption events, or TDEs—using archival observations made by radio telescopes. Of the roughly 100 TDEs that have been discovered to date, this is only the second candidate to be found using radio waves. The first was discovered in 2020 by Marin Anderson (MS '14, PhD '19), a postdoctoral scholar at JPL, which is managed by Caltech for NASA...
The new TDE event, called J1533+2727, was first noticed by Ravi's team after two high school interns from Cambridge, Massachusetts—Ginevra Zaccagnini and Jackson Codd— scanned through decades of radio data captured by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's (NRAO's) Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. The students worked with Ravi from 2018 to 2019 while he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. By comparing radio observations taken years apart, they found that one object, J1533+2727, was fairly bright in the mid-1990s but had dramatically faded by 2017.
I could barely be bothered to do my homework in high school, yet these kids not only discovered an astronomical anomaly, they really went the extra mile:
Like detectives uncovering new clues in a historical case, they then searched the archives of the NRAO's Green Bank 300-foot telescope and learned that the same object was even brighter in 1986 and 1987 (the Green Bank telescope collapsed in 1988). Since its peak of brightness in the mid-1980s, J1533+2727 has faded by a factor of 500.
Based on the data, scientists estimate that "a supermassive black hole at the heart of a galaxy 500 million light-years away crushed a star and then expelled a radio jet traveling at near the speed of light."
It's pretty crazy that these sorts of insane events happen in the universe. It's even crazier when a couple of teenagers can pick them out of old data.
Well done, kids!
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