It was a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Humboldt students make galactic discovery

Amy Furniss was feeling pretty crummy. She had the flu. But she'd been off her feet long enough. There was work to be done. So she sat down at one of the 12 computers in the Arecibo Observatory and started flipping through slides of data

— capturing a tiny segment of the sky — as recorded by the world’s most powerful telescope…in the form of a blue screen with white spots. Lots and lots of them. Slide after slide of fuzzy white spots — like a television on the wrong channel. Amy just needed to find one that appeared slightly more “significant,” one that could perhaps be a galaxy.

The Arecibo Observatory, located in sunny Puerto Rico, houses the world’s largest, most sensitive single-dish radio telescope. It is also, in a word, huge. The dish spans more than 1,000 feet in diameter—a surface area as big as 26 football fields. You may remember Arecibo from the 1997 film contact. It was where Jodie Foster supposedly picked up signals from the extraterrestrial (Furniss said the headset Jodie used is actually tuned in to the sound of tension in the telescope’s cables, and perhaps a group of local frogs — but sure, aliens are much more exciting).

In February 2005, thanks to the recent installation of a new high-tech ALFA (Arecibo L-Band Feed Array) camera at Arecibo, an ambitious sky-mapping project got underway. ALFALFA (Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA Survey) is expected to detect tens of thousands of galaxies over the next six to seven years, some as far away as 750 million light years. Of course, to collect such massive amounts of groundbreaking data, ALFALFA needed a stellar team of astronomers. The Cornell University-led project will involve more than 50 astronomers from 34 major institutions in 13 countries, including some doctorate, master’s, and a small handful of undergraduate students.

Cornell graduate and Humboldt State University professor Dr. David Kornreich was asked to help with the project, making him the only CSU representative. “Dave stopped me in the hall”,”said Arik Mitschang, who, like his girlfriend Amy Furniss, was a senior physics major with particular interest in astrophysics. “I was just walking by and he said ‘Want to go to Puerto Rico?’ And I said ‘Yeah!’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but I thought ‘Puerto Rico? I know what’s in Puerto Rico.’ It hit me instantaneously. ‘He’s talking about Arecibo.’”

For both Mitschang and Furniss, going to Arecibo was the ultimate jackpot, and a dream come true. Furniss, who grew up in rural Eureka, Cailfornia, has vivid memories of looking at the stars with her father, using a telescope he bought her when she was a child. For Mitschang, the obsession with astronomy and its mysteries came about in high school. One summer he built his own telescope, and has been studying stars ever since. Of course, both of them enrolled at HSU not intending to study astrophysics at all. Furniss was planning to be a dancer. But as Mitschang put it, “I really can’t think of anything better to do with my life. What else could I do that would be this cool?”

Kornreich, Mitschang and Furniss set out for the nine-day Puerto Rico adventure in the middle of the spring semester, 2006. Despite all the preparation and excitement, Furniss and Mitschang admit they had no idea what to expect. “I remember the first time coming over the hill and seeing the big towers,” Mitschang said. “You see the Gregorian dome looming over the hillside, and you’re like, ‘Wow!’” Furniss nodded in agreement, adding, “Until you actually see it you have no idea. Pictures don’t do it justice.”

But before long, they’d be practically running the place. “Literally, we got off the plane, we ate dinner, and then Arik went to observe. I went to bed, I had the flu.”

Amy had been sitting at the computer for six hours looking at slides with the same fuzzy white spots. But suddenly she stopped. Her eyes lit up and a surge of excitement rose up her spine. Could it really be? Among all those fuzzy white spots she saw something larger. It looked more like a blotch. It was an unrecorded edge-on spiral galaxy, much like the one we live in. Without hesitation, she threw up her hands and sang, “I found one, I found one, I found one.”

Arecibo ObservatoryWith Furniss’s energy limited by the flu during those first few days at the observatory, Mitschang was putting in up to 18 hours a day. Soon, however, both students were doing what they love best: real-world science. Mitschang and Furniss were tasked with data analysis during the day and running the telescope at night.

Those long hours ended up paying off — very quickly in fact. Their very first night, Mitschang was “driving” the telescope and captured data that indicated the existence of an unrecorded galaxy. “What happened was he drove the telescope over the region of sky that had the galaxy and then I analyzed that data,“ Furniss explained. “So it wasn’t until two days later that we actually did the data analysis and realized what we had.” After she spotted the suspicious blotch, the team cross-referenced the data to an existing, but previously unanalyzed picture of that tiny slice of sky. There it was: an edge-on spiral galaxy.

The name of this new galaxy? Furniss smiled. “AGC193784,” she rattled off, not even taking a breath.

So no one else would forget either, Furniss had the galaxy name inscribed on a t-shirt and gave it to her proud father as a Christmas gift. ““It’s funny. We were talking and he said, ‘‘now when do you get the opportunity to say oh by the way, my daughter discovered a galaxy’.’ And I said, ‘‘Yeah, Dad, you need a conversation starter.’’ So I got him a t-shirt and all it says is AGC193784. So now people will ask him, ‘‘Hey, what’s that?’”’”

Furniss and Mitschang graduated from Humboldt State in December. The two young researchers are currently awaiting acceptance to graduate schools, where they may even continue work with the ALFALFA project. ““You know, I didn’t know that radio astronomy was as cool as it was until I did it,”” Mitschang said. ““Now that’s one of my primary interests…and this really directed me towards that field. It helped shape my interest.””

Furniss added, ““Our experience just opened the doors to talk to people who are as enthusiastic about the mission of discovery as we are. And that’s encouraging.””

Looking back, the two realize they have much to celebrate: As undergraduates they had helped forge the way for the installation of a new state-of-the-art 16-inch computer-driven telescope in HSU’s observatory, the only university telescope in California dedicated for undergraduate research; they’d attended a major astronomical conference and presented research; and they had spent a week working on a major extragalactic survey based at the renowned Arecibo Observatory, even teaching an incoming Ph.D. student how to operate the massive telescope.

Oh, and they discovered a galaxy.