OGDEN, Utah – Weber State University student Michael Malmrose, a senior majoring in physics in the College of Science, recently announced the likely discovery of a previously unknown star using a new planet-hunting method developed at the university.
The star, which orbits a binary system in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way's nearest neighboring galaxies, has at least 50 percent the mass of our sun. The discovery validated the new method that's been in development at WSU the past three years.
WSU students and faculty invented a method for locating celestial bodies orbiting binary systems. Using their theory, the students wrote a computer software program to analyze existing data of binary systems, looking for tell-tale signs of orbiting objects.
Malmrose took over the development of the computer program to test the new method against archival data last summer and received funding through an undergraduate research grant. The data span eight years and contain hundreds of observations of each eclipsing binary. The previous student to work on the project, Adam Reynolds, graduated before the project was complete.
Last fall, the project stalled because of a hard-to-find bug in the computer program's code. But thanks to the help of Stacy Palen, assistant physics professor at WSU, Malmrose was able to fix the problem in January and two days later discovered a new star in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
"It's the funny thing about discoveries," Palen said. "They are usually a long hard slog, followed by an 'aha' moment."
Malmrose's discovery may be just the tip of the iceberg, given that the database being used has more than 6,800 binary systems. While Malmrose will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in physics, Palen plans to conduct a follow-up survey with new students, which will focus on using the database to find previously unknown planets.
The team's work will be submitted to the Astrophysical Journal for peer review later this year.
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