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F&M Student Discovers Rare Extragalactic Pulsar

While Franklin & Marshall's Hackman Scholarship every year enables F&M students to gain hands-on research experience, this year it also offered Jack Madden '14 something special—a chance to make a rare discovery, 160,000 light years from Earth.

Hackman scholars participate in faculty-mentored projects, and Madden spent much of his summer working with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford searching for pulsars—rapidly rotating neutron stars the size of New York City. The task proved especially challenging because Madden was on the hunt for the rarest of finds, extragalactic pulsars outside the Milky Way galaxy. Just 1 percent of the 2,000 pulsars known to astronomers are extragalactic.

One afternoon in May, in the quiet astronomy research laboratory in F&M's Hackman Physical Sciences Building, Madden noticed something as he combed through data on his computer. He saw the classic dark line indicative of a pulsar, produced by radio waves on a graph.

"It wasn't actually very exciting at first because the signal was so strong that I figured this was a redetection of something already discovered," Madden said.

Crawford soon confirmed with colleagues at West Virginia University that Madden had struck gold by finding a pulsar in a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud. Madden is the first F&M student to discover a pulsar, "and it happens to be an extragalactic pulsar," Crawford said.

  • madden crawford
  • F&M student Jack Madden '14 (right) discovered a rare extragalactic pulsar this summer during his Hackman research project with Associate Professor of Astronomy Fronefield Crawford (left). Above, Madden and Crawford stand beside their Beowulf cluster, a series of high-powered computers in F&M's Hackman Physical Sciences Building, which processed the data for Madden's project. (Photo by Chris Karlesky)

"The Eureka moment is delayed when you search for pulsars. You have to be suspicious that you haven't found something already in the database," Crawford said. "This is the second-most rapidly rotating radio pulsar outside our galaxy, and it might be a young pulsar. Jack's discovery could help us study the conditions in which such pulsars are born."

Madden said he looks forward to conducting future research in astrophysics after making the rare discovery.

"To make a unique scientific discovery like this so early in my career as a scientist is incredibly motivational," Madden said. "Now that I have a small taste of what it is like to contribute to the field of astrophysics, I'm inspired to make a bigger impact."

Pulsars are important to astronomers because their magnetic fields are trillions of times stronger than Earth's magnetic fields, providing the only opportunities to study physics in such extreme environments, Madden said.

"Pulsars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe," Madden said. "They're extremely dense and rotate extremely fast. You could think of them as one step away from a black hole. We can use them as laboratories to study magnetic fields and use them to detect gravitational waves."

Madden's work with Crawford was part of a Hackman Scholarship summer program in which F&M students conduct challenging, high-level projects to support research by faculty members. During the summer of 2012, 66 Hackman Scholars conducted research under the supervision of 41 F&M professors. The Hackman Scholars Program was established through an endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman.

"A lot of this kind of work (searching for pulsars) depends on having students available to assist," Crawford said. "There is a lot of work, such as looking through possible pulsar candidate signals—which Jack was doing—that one person cannot easily do alone. On the flip side, the student receives a lot of personalized attention and education, develops research skills and gets to play a real role in important research projects."

Throughout his Hackman project, Madden pored over reams of data collected by the Parkes Telescope in Australia, an instrument Crawford said is at the forefront of observatory technology. Collaborators at Murray State University and West Virginia University processed the data before sending it to F&M, where a cluster of high-powered computers—known as a Beowulf cluster—helped Crawford and Madden examine the data.

Crawford has worked with astronomers around the globe over the past decade to discover and study pulsars. He continues to lead an effort to learn more about a binary pulsar system 2,500 light years from Earth with astronomers from Canada, England, Germany, Italy and the Unites States, a project for which he was featured in the International Year of Astronomy's 365 Days of Astronomy in 2010.