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Beyond the Milky Way



It wasn't all that surprising when a woman stopped by our office the other evening and said she'd just been over at Café Mokka -- the place with the hot tubs in the enchanted forest -- where she overheard that two guys there had discovered a spiral galaxy. All sorts of intellectual pursuits take place in that cozy confine: brain-twirling rants that slip from beneath woolly hats; theory-popping smartisms that escape bearded lips; homework. Even the fuzzy cat, napping cock-eared on the table amid the news magazines, acts deep.

But the coffee's good, so we investigated. And we discovered that, in fact, a young woman who works at the café was one of 14 students in a physics class at Humboldt State University who discovered several new galaxies recently. What's more, she, Tess Senty, would be flying off to Puerto Rico in a few days (she left Saturday) to take her turn at viewing the sky through the world's largest radio telescope, a mile-circumference dish nestled in a giant sinkhole in Arecibo (and featured in the movie Contact). It's a rare opportunity she earned by co-writing a winning research proposal with a student from Puerto Rico.

Before she left town, Senty and one of her classmates, Nathan Rasmussen, from Physics 360 -- "Physics of Stars and Planets," taught by David Kornreich, also heading for Arecibo last Saturday -- agreed to meet at the café to talk about their discoveries. Senty is a physics major with an emphasis in astronomy -- a brand-new degree option at HSU. Rasmussen is a physics major.

On Oct. 20, said Senty, the class was allowed to command the massive Arecibo telescope via the Internet. The opportunity came about because Kornreich's role in a mass collaboration to map out the sky and look, specifically, for undiscovered galaxies.

"We parked the telescope on the meridian -- an imaginary line in the sky -- and just let the sky drift," said Senty. "And we collected so many hours of data. And then a few nights later we were allowed to process the data."

Rasmussen said the class split into groups, and each group studied a chunk of the data -- screensful of radio waves picked up by the telescope that look like static on an untuned TV. They looked for unusual patterns -- white smudges that might indicate radio waves of hydrogen emitted by the galaxies.

Senty and Rasmussen's group discovered an on-edge spiral galaxy, which looks like it sounds. Simultaneously, another group found a dwarf galaxy. Then the other groups found more galaxies.

"We were super excited," said Senty.

By phone last week, Kornreich said that, in all, the class found six possible new galaxies; he later found two more. Four of them, including the one Senty and Rasmussen's group spotted, have been confirmed. Kornreich said it's not unusual to discover galaxies, but it was rare to find so many in such a short time. "In a typical eight-hour night of observing, you've got about a 50-50 chance of finding one," he said. "In this observing session, we just did a sample session of about four hours and found four definite ones and two maybes, which is really good."

So why look for galaxies, anyway?

"Because it's cool," said Kornreich. "Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has about a hundred billion stars in it. And basically, almost every star that we've looked at, that we could detect planets around, we have. And so every galaxy that we detect is another hundred billion planets that could potentially have life or intelligent civilizations we can talk to. So, that's one reason why it's interesting. The other reason it's interesting is, the more information we collect from outside of our own galaxy, the more we'll know about the whole universe -- the Big Bang.

"So we're right on the edge of interesting stuff. Maybe someday we'll come across that radio signal where the aliens are saying, ‘Hello, how are you?'"

Back at the Café Mokka last week, Rasmussen said he wants to design space systems and robotic space rovers -- he's hoping this summer to work on a project that's trying to land a robotic critter on a comet. Senty, who will be HSU's first astronomy graduate, wants to become a professor so she can share her love of the sky.

"I'm always looking up," she says. "The other day I fell off my bike looking at the sky."

It was Jupiter, beaming bright, who'd caught her eye.

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