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Pupil's persistence pays off with discovery of pulsar
By Ben Orcutt -- firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- Alexander Snider never expected that he would discover a star when he joined the Sherando High School Astronomy Club, but that's exactly what happened.
Snider, a 17-year-old senior, discovered a pulsar on Jan. 20 during a web tech class at Sherando. He made the discovery as part of the Pulsar Search Collaboratory in conjunction with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va.
"It was unexpected," Snider said Tuesday. "I expected to join the program and have some fun with it, but I never really actually expected to find anything."
So just what exactly is a pulsar?
"It's a rapidly rotating star, and I believe this one rotates around 30 times a second, I believe," Snider said. "I knew right away that it was a pulsar from looking at the data. Yeah, I think it was the second confirmed pulsar ever found by a high school student in this program."
Snider said a pulsar looks like a lighthouse beam with two lights extending out.
"It's those two beams of light and it releases like radio signals that we can pick up here on Earth," he said. "I just used one of the school computers. It was in web tech."
The discovery eventually led to a road trip.
"I actually found it at my school during one of my last block classes," Snider added. "To confirm the discovery we actually got to go down to Green Bank in West Virginia and got to use the telescope there. ... We got to see the data coming back from the pulsar. We got to see a graph that came up that told us indeed it was real and it wasn't a radio interference or anything."
According to a news release from Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy, records management and communications for the Frederick County Public Schools, Snider and other members of the Sherando Astronomy Club have been working with earth sciences teacher Debra Edwards on the pulsar project.
"It was exciting to learn that one of our students made such an important discovery," Debra Edwards says in the news release. "When the project began, we were hoping to discover a pulsar. The students have been searching diligently and it's exciting to see their hard work result in an important discovery."
Snider said making the discovery is one of the neatest things that's ever happened to him.
"I'm looking to go into a science of some kind," Snider added. "I'm not really sure yet exactly what I want to major in. I've been accepted by George Mason already and I'm waiting to hear back from a couple other schools, but mainly still Virginia schools that I'm looking around right now."
Snider is excited about listing his discovery on college applications.
"I get credit for it and mainly what I'm looking forward to is I think it will help out a lot in college applications," Snider said. "I think that would look pretty good on applications I still [would like] to send in."
Snider's also interested in other sciences, and is involved in other activities at Sherando High School.
Snider said that he still has to pinch himself as a reminder that he really did make the discovery. According to the news release, another Virginia student, Casey Thompson, discovered the same pulsar on Jan. 20 and a day later, Kentucky student Hannah Mabry made the same discovery.
"I discovered it independently," Snider said. "I think Casey found it around an hour after I did and Hannah found it the day after and confirmed it."
A pulsar is a neutron star, according to a news release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
"A neutron star is what is left after a massive star explodes at the end of its 'normal' life," the release says. "One tablespoon of material from a pulsar would weigh 10 million tons -- as much as a supertanker."