The Milky Way enjoys a light drizzle throughout its galactic year. These cosmic raindrops are speedy clouds of mostly hydrogen gas that rain down onto our galaxy’s spiral disk. They fly through space at hundreds of kilometers per second (millions of miles per hour) and don’t rotate with the Milky Way. They’re appropriately named high-velocity clouds.
This shower of gas is important for fueling star formation. The Milky Way assembles stars at a respectable rate of about one solar mass per year. But it takes gas to keep that starbirth going. Much as the manna from heaven fed the Israelites, these clouds feed star formation in the Milky Way by replenishing the galaxy’s gas at the same rate as the galaxy burns through it.
Despite their importance, we know a paltry amount about these star-fueling clouds. What they’re made of, where they come from, or even how far away they are — astronomers generally scratch their heads about all of these.
The universe is a vast and mysterious space, filled with distant and puzzling objects, but UW-Madison physics professor Peter Timbie has played a huge role in helping to demystify it by giving us a deeper understanding of the incredibly rare cosmological phenomenon called Fast Radio Burst: a singular pulse of radio signal.
Timbie and his lab work with understanding the early universe, using large radio telescopes to detect the signals emitted by distant pulsars, which are neutron stars that emit regular and repeated radio wave signals across the universe.
During a radio survey using the Green Bank Radio Telescope in Green Bank, Va., they heard that a research group in Australia had detected over ten Fast Radio Bursts, or FRBs. Timbie decided to analyze the data his team had already collected using the Green Bank Telescope, looking for any signs of previously unnoticed FRBs.
Using a new algorithm developed by members of Timbie’s lab, they were able to find one FRB in over 650 hours of archival data. That single FRB, found using the help of the Green Bank Telescope, has provided the clearest image yet of what a Fast Radio Burst is.
When New York production company Partisan Pictures was given the task to film and produce a three-part series about technology and the Internet, the crew searched for interesting stories to include and came across Green Bank – the small town at the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone.
It didn’t take long for Partisan Pictures president, producer, director and cinema-tographer Peter Schnall to decide Green Bank needed to be part of the project.
“As we were looking around for really cool and interesting and unusual stories about technology, we bumped into a story – online, of course – about Green Bank, and we thought, ‘how interesting,’” Schnall said. “What a sort of opposite tale to the rapid and sort of pell mell pace and changes in technology, and how it affects us on a daily basis – from cellphones to the Internet to just our daily lives inundated more and more with technological marvels and wonders to the point where, to a certain extent, it impedes on our daily life.
If you take normal matter — something made of protons, neutrons and electrons — and compress it as far as it will go, something incredible happens. At high enough temperatures and densities, something requiring a tremendous amount of mass hundreds of thousands of times as great as planet Earth, nuclear fusion occurs, giving rise to a living star. Burn through all the hydrogen, though, and your star’s core will be made of helium, which will collapse further and heat up to even higher temperatures and densities. Reach a critical temperature and helium will be begin burning, forming carbon. After some time, you’ll run out of helium, too, where your now-carbon core begins to contract, heating up and becoming more dense. At this stage, one of two critical things can occur.
Either your star isn’t massive enough to ignite carbon, in which case it will gently blow off its outer layers and form a white dwarf at the center: a degenerate mass of atoms that’s maybe the mass of the Sun but only the physical size of Earth. This sounds like an incredible state of matter, but it’s still relatively sparse, at “only” a few hundred thousand times the density of our planet. The atoms themselves are sufficient to prevent gravitational collapse from taking things further.
Imagine making plans with your friends — by walking to their house to talk in person.
That’s the norm at Green Bank, West Virginia, where its 143 residents can’t rely on their cellphones or tablets to connect with friends and loved ones because all wireless devices are forbidden.
Located within a 13,000-square mile area known as the National Radio Quiet Zone, Green Bank houses the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the world’s largest radio telescope.
“It’s the study of the natural radio emissions that are coming from bodies in space,” explained Michael Holstine, the observatory’s business manager.
Standing 485-feet tall and weighing nearly 17-million pounds, the telescope is so large that a college football stadium could fit inside the dish. It’s also incredibly sensitive to electronic interference and, Holstine said, so powerful that it could pick up “the energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground.”