High-School Student Discovers Strange Astronomical Object

A West Virginia high-school student has discovered a new astronomical object — a type of neutron star called a rotating radio transient by analyzing data gathered by a giant radio telescope, National Science Foundation’s giant Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT).

Lucas Bolyard, a sophomore at South Harrison High School in Clarksburg, WV, made the discovery while participating in a project, Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) involving scrutinizing data from the telescope.


The project is a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and West Virginia University (WVU), funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Bolyard made the discovery in March after studying more than 2,000 data plots from the GBT and finding nothing from them.

“I was home on a weekend and had nothing to do, so I decided to look at some more plots from the GBT,” he said. “I saw a plot with a pulse, but there was a lot of radio interference, too. The pulse almost got dismissed as interference,” he added.

He reported the finding, and it went on to West Virginia University astronomers Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer to re-examine, who schedules some new observations to be made of the region of sky from which the pulse came. The observations failed to show anything, indicating that the object was not a normal pulsar. However, the astronomers explained to Bolyard the possibility that his pulse could have come from a rotating radio transient.

The confirmation came in July. Bolyard was at the NRAO’s Green Bank Observatory with his fellow PSC students. Lorimer showed Bolyard a new plot of his pulse, reprocessed from raw data, showing that it is real, not interference, and that Bolyard has possibly become the discoverer of one of only about 30 rotating radio transients known.”That news made me full of energy,” he exclaimed.

Rotating radio transients are thought to be similar to pulsars, superdense neutron stars that are remains of massive stars that exploded as supernovae. Pulsars keep on generating radio waves continuously, while rotating radio transients generate only one burst at a time, with as much as several hours between bursts. This makes them very difficult to discover and observe.