UK student scientists discover rare evolved star

4 Jul 2019 11:36 AM

A group of UK students have discovered a rare evolved star, with support and funding from STFC, as part of a project to identify targets for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Students

The students on the left are from Lampton School in west London and the students on the right from The Camden School for Girls in north London. These are two of the schools involved in the IRIS project, along with Larbert High School in Falkirk, Scotland. (Credit: IRIS)

The students have presented their ground-breaking scientific findings at the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting 2019 to an audience of 500 leading scientists from the UK and around the world.

As part of the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS) cosmic mining project, funded by STFC, student scientists from two secondary schools in London and one in Edinburgh have managed to spot a rare event – a star like our sun that is coming to the end of its life cycle, before it turns into a planetary nebula. This is a significant find because it tells astronomers more about the life and death of stars, particularly those like our own sun – and the students have now been able to share their findings with this world-leading forum.

The star they spotted is very dusty, and there are currently only a few spectra of stars which are this dusty and at this stage in their evolution. The students managed to find several examples of this type of rare star, which will provide vital parameters for scientists to compare future astronomical observations.

The students made their findings by sifting through data that came from the Spitzer Space Telescope, made possible by IRIS and STFC. NASA’s Spitzer mission has observed tens of thousands of points of potential interest, creating vast amounts of astronomical data. The students’ discoveries were hidden in massive amounts of data that would likely not have ever been looked at, meaning these findings may have never been made without them.

The IRIS student scientists have been working with STFC scientists based at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), to select potential targets to make the scientific case for pointing the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2021 - which has been described by NASA as the world’s premier science observatory for the next decade.

Dr Olivia Jones, astronomer at UKATC and STFC lead on this IRIS project, said: “The student scientists have made several exciting and unusual discoveries in the Spitzer Spectral archive. Without their help, these discoveries would have remained uncovered. Right now, I am working with collaborators from around the world towards publishing a paper on these discoveries. The student researchers will be our co-authors, that in itself is such a great achievement and something of which they should all be extremely proud. Working with the student researchers through this IRIS project has been a wonderful experience and they have certainly kept me on my toes with their questions.”

Professor Becky Parker, Director of the Institute for Research in Schools and chair of the Royal Astronomical Society Education and Outreach Committee, said: “This is only one of a handful of times that student scientists have had the exciting opportunity to share their cutting-edge findings at the National Astronomy Meeting. Allowing students to contribute to this world-leading forum proves that they can make a real difference to the world around us. These students are the next generation of scientists making pioneering discoveries that the scientific community is taking note of.”

These significant findings will help astronomers to understand more about how planets, stars and galaxies formed and evolved. By helping professional researchers to go through vast amounts of information that would otherwise take years, the IRIS student scientists are speeding up the exploration of clouds of cosmic dust and discovering stars in the process of forming and stars at the very end of their lifecycles in the process.

Useful web links

The Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS)

James Webb Space Telescope

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2019)

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS)