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Episode 9 - Star Hunters

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On a dark summer night, teenagers tromp down a road that disappears into the trees. It’s actually a terrible time to do what they’re going to do, because the Earth is mostly blocking the plane of the Milky Way. That makes it all the more challenging. They walk into a bunker beside a radio telescope from the 1960s, and they start telling it what to do. They want to collect radio signals of galactic hydrogen in their 30 minutes of glory. But this is just the exhibition. The real work happens at home.

A student stands in the doorway of the control room for the 40-foot Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory.A student stands in the doorway of the control room for the 40-foot Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory. (Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.) 
The students are at the Green Bank Observatory in the National Radio Quiet Zone. There is no cell service. The teens are there because they are in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, a group that has seen hundreds of kids who for more than a decade have been looking for a type of star called a pulsar. 

This kind of star is believed to be made of the remains of another star. After a star goes supernova, the remnants can coalesce and form a neutron star that sends out regular pulses of radio waves – a pulsar. Maura McLaughlin, Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University, co-founded the Collaboratory. She says that pulses from these stars are cosmic clocks that help scientists measure distances and explore space. 

Maura McLaughlin works with the Pulsar Search Collaboratory at WVU.
Professor Maura McLaughlin works with students from the Pulsar Search Collaboratory at West Virginia University during a visit to the astronomy labs. (Photo by Jennifer Shephard.) 
This visit to camp deals with the question of where do the teenagers who want to become scientists live? It turns out some of them live in Appalachia. And let’s be real, there are lots of programs that we have kids doing today that are more about the aura of science than training to become scientists. You’ll find out how this one holds up in the episode. 

[SPOILER] You should really listen to the episode right now. No, really. Go listen to it and then read this. 

So, students in the PSC did ultimately find stars. And that first one is described in the podcast episode. Here is a list of the students who discovered pulsars and a radio transient

Colby Winters presents a poster at WVU.
Colby Winters presented a paper on a visit to West Virginia University. He's from rural Eastern Kentucky where he says there isn't a lot of opportunity for this kind of hands-on science at his age. (Photo by Jennifer Shephard). 
Do you know a student or teacher who would be perfect for the Collaboratory? Find out more on the Pulsar Search Collaboratory website

Watch this video by producer Raymond Thompson Jr. to feel like you’re at the Pulsar Search Collaboratory camp yourself. 

Our thanks for this episode go to Maura McLaughlin, Sue Ann Heatherly, the Green Bank Observatory and the students and teachers of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory. 

Tell us what you thought of this episode by emailing And we would love if you could rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It helps other listeners find our podcast. 

A set of dials in the control room at the 40-foot telescope at Green Bank.A set of dials in the control room at the 40-foot Telescope. We said the technology was from the 1960s. (Photo by Diana Mazzella).