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18-Year-Old Student Discovers Comet Break-Up

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the patience-and-a-sweet-telescope dept.

Space 68

astroengine writes "It's an event that any professional astronomer would consider to be a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. But for one 18-year-old British student, witnessing the fragmentation of a comet she was studying became the highlight of a summer work experience program using the Faulkes Telescope Project. However, that was just the icing on the cake; Hannah Blyth of St. Johns College, Cardiff, also assisted in the discovery of over 20 previously unknown asteroids, two of which she discovered herself. It is extremely rare to spot a fragmenting comet, but for an amateur (let alone an 18-year-old student on work experience), this is an incredible achievement."

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68 comments

lucky person gets lucky (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37301902)

fair enough a once in a lifetime occurence
it's presumably rare as hen's teeth to see, rather than requiring skill other than basic capability, its more luck
i guess she's gonna wait a while for a another significant spotting, unless she's well ahead in the favour of lady luck
good on her seeing something cool though

Re:lucky person gets lucky (1)

AHuxley (892839) | more than 2 years ago | (#37301932)

What are the rest of the UK's top 'space' science people doing if they have "work experience" people using telescopes?
Many PhDs, researchers, grads are produced per year and a limited count of fully funded "telescopes" - usually in demand and something coveted.

Re:lucky person gets lucky (3, Insightful)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 2 years ago | (#37303542)

Filling the young people who are just about to set off down their academic path with enthusiasm and excitement for all the Really Cool Things you get to do with science, obviously.

Their investment paid off.

Re:lucky person gets lucky (1)

xaxa (988988) | more than 2 years ago | (#37307272)

What are the rest of the UK's top 'space' science people doing if they have "work experience" people using telescopes?

Many PhDs, researchers, grads are produced per year and a limited count of fully funded "telescopes" - usually in demand and something coveted.

As the other reply says, inspiring the next generation.

We have some 18 year old students for 6 weeks over the summer, doing science. Also, about 10 university students work here for a year between 2nd and 3rd year ("year in industry"). Most of them learn loads, the university students make a good contribution, the pre-uni ones probably do to (none in my department) and many of them eventually work here, or somewhere similar, after graduating. Part of our remit is to educate.

I work in IT, so what the science students do is nothing to do with me. But it seems the ones doing the more expensive stuff (e.g. presenting their work at a conference somewhere, doing more costly research themselves) are the best ones.

Re:lucky person gets lucky (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37301938)

"Hannah was imaging Comet 213P Van Ness as part of a project being coordinated by UK astronomer Nick Howes, and two of the world's leading comet and asteroid imagers, Italians Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido.

For the second time in just over a year, observations involving Howes and the Faulkes team have detected the fragmentation of a comet nucleus. For an amateur to be involved in a discovery like this is highly unusual, but the fact that the images were obtained by a school student makes this even more remarkable. "

Sounds to me like she pushed the shutter button and happened to capture something remarkable when analyzed by an expert.

Yawn.

Re:lucky person gets lucky (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302032)

Sounds to me like she pushed the shutter button and happened to capture something remarkable when analyzed by an expert.

Apparently she not only took the photos but was also the one who first noticed something out of the ordinary, according to the first article. Of course she was lucky to be looking at the right patch of sky at the right moment. But luck is always part of the equation in this kind of discovery, and we do tend to make a point of mentioning who was looking. This shows that taking part makes a difference. That's pretty exciting.

Re:lucky person gets lucky (2)

QuasiSteve (2042606) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302204)

It is pretty exciting - not just for astronomers in general, but also (and especially) for her. If it fosters her interest in astronomy or just science in general even more, that is also very exciting. It's also exciting that this is one of many recent stories about young people making these discoveries - and part of that is because the barrier to entry has become pretty low.

But what it isn't, is "an incredible achievement". This doesn't diminish the fact that she's the one that spotted it and should get all the credit she's due, but that should stand on its own without hyperbole.

I'm sure she doesn't really care what words are used, though, and is perfectly excited regardless.

Re:lucky person gets lucky (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302878)

Well - not so lucky I think...

You see - I am sure Apple patented the "comet breaking up" event, so she will see a few years in court, have to pay $100.000.000.000 an have to spent 500 years in prison for unrigthfully discovering something that absolutely without any doubt belongs to the new Apple "iComet break-up service".

Mark my words...

Re:lucky person gets lucky (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302274)

Agree this is sensational bullshit.
How hard is it to click an icon on the computer screen and peer at some images on the same. This must have taken at least an hour of detailed studies on the student's part.

You can say the same about most of these science fair "winners" that graces /. from time to time.
(1)Follow basic instructions on how to perform some lab work and/or operate some equipment.
(2)Write up observations, usually with significant help from those who actually know the subject.
(3)Bask in sensationalistic glory.

Nothing against these kids, but any intelligent observer must conclude they have done basically nothing.

GOOD FOR HER! (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37301918)

Good for her! This is what British science used to be about. The quest for knowledge and discovery is what once made the UK a scientific superpower. The neverending thirst for understanding that cannot be quenched. The burning desire to see further and deeper than has been seen before. The uncontainable urge to explore the unknown. The raging curiosity. The screaming need for enlightenment. The arousal of the inquisitive mind. The yearning for greater power of the mind. The want of all know-how. The needling pain of not knowing.

It is because of these urges that we now know glorious names today, like Francis Bacon, Roger Bacon, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, James D. Watson, Francis Crick, and Alan Cox.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (0)

Dails (1798748) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302030)

You forgot to write the predicates for like half of your sentences. Also, don't forget Kevin Bacon.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302092)

The predicates are implied. The GP used a construct that's common in British English, but relatively rare in American English. Take the third sentence and replace the "The quest for knowledge and discovery" part of it with the sentences that follow. You'll then get complete sentences like, "The neverending thirst for understanding that cannot be quenched is what once made the UK a scientific superpower." and "The burning desire to see further and deeper than has been seen before is what once made the UK a scientific superpower."

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (1)

angel'o'sphere (80593) | more than 2 years ago | (#37303644)

Yeah, but your suggestion is very complicated to read (because of the long sentences) and your GPs way of putting it made perfectly sense.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37305484)

Yeah, well it doesn't matter since this is America, and so you should talk it like an American.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (1)

Dails (1798748) | more than 2 years ago | (#37307132)

Yes, I do speak English and so I understood the sentence. The grammar crumbles when that half-sentence construct takes up half the paragraph. It should be just a few, like "The Larch! The Fir! The mighty Scots Pine!" and go back to actual sentences. Just like in programming, just because it works doesn't mean it's good.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302248)

more like 5/6ths of their sentences

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302252)

Captain Grammar loans you, like, two commas.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302580)

Captain Grammar loans you, like, two commas.

To hell with that! Colonel Punctuation GIVES you a small order of semicolons, free of charge. Use them well.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37304306)

Captain Grammar cordially declines your offer. He does, though, insist that you let him abuse your colon.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (1)

Skiph (149178) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302626)

If we are going to get, well, picky. How about "spectacular tales of gas"? Is this a "Brit Speak" thing? It occurred in more than one place. I was just wondering.

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (4, Insightful)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302512)

The quest for knowledge and discovery is what once made the UK a scientific superpower.

Also a healthy respect for the amateur scientist.

I've been recently writing a paper about the early mathematical work on solitary waves - guys like Laplace, Lagrange, Russell, etc. A surprising number of them were "gentlemen of science" who did it for the love, and because that's what gentlemen of science did. They didn't have research grants or teaching posts. Well, Russell did get all of 300 pounds to study shallow water, and that was a lot at the time, but not when considering that naval power and maritime trade were so important. But a lot of them were just guys who maybe came from wealthy families and were into scientific stuff.

20 astroids... That's it? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302844)

ASU finds 1000+ new asteroids [youtube.com] on any clear night on their 60" telescope these days. Were her 20+ asteroids all earth crossers or something? Were they discovered by software she wrote to automatically scan the sky and compare them against the ~half million known asteroids? Witnessing a comet break up, that's pretty cool... but I wouldn't call it the 'icing on the cake' to her 'major' asteroid discoveries :)

Re:GOOD FOR HER! (1)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 2 years ago | (#37312200)

Good for her! This is what British science used to be about. The quest for knowledge and discovery is what once made the UK a scientific superpower.

I'm not sure why you felt the need to bring nationality into this, but it's interesting to note that this is an American girl, in the UK, using telescopes in Australia and Maui. When it comes to science, borders don't mean much any more.

Having solved all other problems (-1, Flamebait)

Gothmolly (148874) | more than 2 years ago | (#37301920)

It's nice to see the UK government spending money and resources on this.

YOU SEE SCIENCE AS A PROBLEM? FUCK YOU, BUDDY! (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37301960)

What in the fuck are you talking about? This is fundamental scientific knowledge. Yes, this should receive public money, regardless of what other "problems" might exist.

I truly can't believe that you're suggesting that science and education aren't worth spending money on. Science and education will cure most, if not all, of the problems that you're thinking of. Foreign and domestic youth looting and stealing? Put them in the damn classroom and make them learn something for a change. Rampant unemployment? Train people so that they can discover new industries and create employment. The rash on your lover's genitals? Let medical researchers study it so they can come up with a cure.

Any place that hates science, knowledge and education will soon end up like the southern states in the USA. That is, it'll become a backward, third-world shit heap where poverty, crime, and religion run rampant. Even Afghanistan is a more livable and science-friendly place, I hate to say it.

Re:Having solved all other problems (5, Interesting)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302046)

The cost of astronomy programs of this sort is actually tiny. The program in question uses a series of semi-automated or fully automated telescopes which are distributed around the world. Once the telescopes are constructed the marginal cost to keeping them running is small. Moreover, these telescopes are being used for other projects as well, such as imaging stars, looking for recent supernova, and careful imaging of supernova discovered by other means (such as the very recent very close supernova in M101). This sort of study helps give us a lot of fundamental knowledge. Data about comets and asteroids helps us find out in detail what the early solar system was like. Work with far away stars like Cepheid variables lets us map the farthest reaches of the universe. Imaging of supernova also contributes to that task but also allows us to test the laws of physics with fine precision, getting information about things like dark matter and the like. Given the high return rate of this sort of thing and the comparatively low cost, it definitely makes sense for the UK to spend money on this.

Student sees comet break-up (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37301986)

and gets to tweet about it before the comet updates its FaceBook page

Meanwhile the comet is looking for a new partner on eHarmony and match.com

Very young people and astronomy (4, Informative)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302018)

There seems to be a growing trend of young amateur astronomers. In 2009, Caroline Moore, a 14 year-old at the time became the youngest person to discover a supernova- http://www.astronomy.com/en/News-Observing/News/2009/06/Profile%20Youngest%20person%20to%20discover%20a%20supernova.aspx [astronomy.com] . She was then shortly thereafter surpassed by the 10-year old Kathryn Aurora Gray http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/04/girl-10-becomes-youngest-to-discover-supernova/ [cnn.com] If one is at all old this thing starts to really make one feel unaccomplished by comparison.

One thing you might notice is that all of these people are female. I tentatively don't think this is a coincidence but at the same time don't think this is a strong example of the growth of females in science (although it certainly should help inspire other young girls). There's been for a very long history of women astronomers. While the specific example prior to about 1850 there are isolated examples like Caroline Herschel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Herschel [wikipedia.org] but in the second half of the 19th century a large number of women went into astronomy related work. Examples include Antonia Maury who did some of the first careful analysis and cataloging of stellar spectra http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonia_Maury [wikipedia.org] and Annie Jump Cannon who followed on Maury's and others work making systematic the correlations between spectra, temperature and brightness, a crucial issue for trying to estimate the distance of any start that is more than a few hundred light years away http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Jump_Cannon [wikipedia.org] . And then you have Henrietta Swan Leavitt http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Swan_Leavitt [wikipedia.org] who discovered Cepheid variable stars which allow one to extend distance estimates even farther, to outside our own galaxy. One thing that is important to notice is that a lot of these early female astronomers were doing work careful cataloging and classification work that was actually considered women's work and considered to be not that important by many. Thus, they got a lot less credit in their lifetimes than male astronomers. So at least that aspect has changed a lot.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302036)

* One thing you might notice is that all of these people are female. I tentatively don't think this is a coincidence

Correct. It's not a coincidence. It's just that the press doesn't give a shit if males do it. Example: you'd think that all murder victims in the UK are female.

In reality, it's just that the press couldn't care less if you are male and get murdered - unless there happens to be some other cause they can attach to it (possible race motivations for example) and stoke up coverage.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (3, Insightful)

JoshuaZ (1134087) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302070)

That doesn't make any sense. The people in question were the youngest to do what they've done, not the youngest females to do what they've done. There's a clear series of accomplishments here.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302078)

You only read about it when it's a female looking through the telescope at the right time.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1, Insightful)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302328)

Refreshing. We get a sexist arsehole today. Nice change from the usual rabble of racists and homophobes. Good job, coward.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (2)

Kagura (843695) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302616)

I think he's pointing out sexism he perceives elsewhere. He's not saying males need more representation, but rather that our society at large is more surprised when a female accomplishes these tasks.

Also, a question for you: is it sexist to say that women aren't as strong as men or that women can't run as fast as men?

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1, Insightful)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302872)

He's claiming persecution from a position of privilege, at least that's how I read it. This has nothing to do with women being in average not as strong as men.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302912)

And you are just "making shit up". Congrats on being a dickhead.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1)

Kagura (843695) | more than 2 years ago | (#37303600)

He's claiming persecution from a position of privilege, at least that's how I read it. This has nothing to do with women being in average not as strong as men.

He's claiming women are "persecuted". He isn't allowed to hold a viewpoint because of his "position of privilege" as a man?

And that extra question was unrelated.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1)

turbidostato (878842) | more than 2 years ago | (#37305036)

"is it sexist to say that women aren't as strong as men or that women can't run as fast as men?"

Yes, because for all practical purposes it is worse than false: it is irrelevant.

I bet you can neither beat the 10.49 mark on Florence Griffith's 100 m nor lift the 158 Kg of Liu Chunhong's. So what's the exact meaning of "women aren't as strong as men" and how does it matter for practical purposes? The fact is that people's strengh doesn't mean nuts, a *given* person strenght may matter and, in this case, you can bet there's a lot of women as there are a lot of men that beat you so your point is, again?

Re:Very young people and astronomy (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302634)

How predictable. Care to tell us exactly how that was "sexist"?

Re:Very young people and astronomy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37306846)

Refreshing. We get a sexist arsehole today. Nice change from the usual rabble of racists and homophobes. Good job, coward.

This was part of a research project led by three Men who are world-class Comet Researchers. She was serving as a research assistant.

In the summers in Montana where I live, I work as an Outfitter for tourists who want to fly fish. I pick their gear, arrange logistics, and take them to some prime fishing locations. I show them how to cast, hook, and land the fish. Then they go through the motions under my guidance. If one of them catches a record-setting fish, they get the credit. But that does not make them fishermen.

This is the same thing. The bulk of the actual Science was done by the Men leading the project. I'm not trying to make light of what she did, I'm putting it into perspective. This type of story is being overly sensationalized because of the push to try and get more women interested in science. Had she been a man, there would be no media story. Yes, this is a cool thing for an 18 year old research assistant, but the story paints a picture of an amateur when she's not- she's a student working with a professional research team.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37307298)

Furthermore, there is always a youngest person to do anything. How is that special? And there will always be a youngest female to do any particular thing. So what? Isn't the writer really trying to say that Ms Moore was *very* young? All young astronomers who discover things should be celebrated and encouraged. Or will we ignore them because they're past the age of being the youngest?

Re:Very young people and astronomy (3, Interesting)

Will.Woodhull (1038600) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302406)

Young eyes are better at recognizing novel patterns than highly trained older eyes. As a person gains experience in a highly visual field like astronomy, they are more likely to regard something they had never seen before as a variant of what they already knew. A youngster to the field is more likely to bring the same image to someone else's attention: "What do you think this is? Could it be a Carolian snark?"

Women in the US and I believe in Europe (and possibly across the entire human species) invest less ego in discovery activities than men do. Women are less likely to be anxious about making mistakes, and are therefore more likely to show unusual findings to more experienced persons.

While many conclusions can be drawn from these two assertions, the obvious one is that observatories should actively recruit young, naive, nubile women to do all the night time work of taking the first look at all visual data. This would probably be the single most effective way in which astronomy could attract new males to its studies.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1)

formfeed (703859) | more than 2 years ago | (#37305298)

While many conclusions can be drawn from these two assertions, the obvious one is that observatories should actively recruit young, naive, nubile women to do all the night time work of taking the first look at all visual data.

Leela?

Fits your description (except the naive) and is genetically uniquely qualified for astronomy.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#37303162)

It's one of the few branches of science where a young amateur can actually do something interesting. They took all the good stuff out of chemistry sets due to liability issues. People doing electronics are conflated with hackers. Basement biochem is out of the reach of young people for cost reasons.

But one thing kids do have lots of is time. Sitting behind a computer poring over image after image is precisely the kind of task kids excel at these days.

Re:Very young people and astronomy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37303714)

Astronomy is one of the few branches of science where ANY amateur can contribute. They do this every single day. Tracking asteroids, looking for new novae, supernovae, new comets and tracking variable stars are all things where amateurs contribute every day.

Novae and supernovae are typically discovered by something called "blinking". This takes two photos, one old and one new, and rapidly switches between the two. The human eye is very good at noticing changes between images. This was done manually and was very tedious. Computers have made it much easier and therefore much faster.

Seems not all that incredible to me (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302052)

Seems to be rather more of a lucky "in the right place at the right time" than an "incredible achievement" to me. How is her contribution unique that would not have occurred had someone else been in her place at that time?

Luck (1, Offtopic)

tsa (15680) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302270)

I think it's more incredible luck than an incredible achievement.

Re:Luck (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302352)

I totally agree. Happenstance and good fortune require no experience, expertise or anything else. She happened to be looking at the right spot at the right time. She did not know, expect, anticipate or predict the event at that location. She simple happened to observe the passing of an event.

 

Re:Luck (4, Insightful)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | more than 2 years ago | (#37302562)

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Re:Luck (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37303024)

Ho ho! Looks like we live in a deterministic world, folks!

Re:Luck (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37303422)

How does that work for a lottery? There are tons and tons of people who prepare for the opportunity and yet all but one loses. Most prepare a heck a lot more than the winner but rarely win. What she did is almost similar... odds were probably the same.

In her case, I would lean toward luck. Its when 'shit just happens' in your favor but you increase your chances via preparation. Nice work preparing, but lets not forget the majority of it was given to her by the heavens.

Both puns intended.

Re:Luck (2)

tsa (15680) | more than 2 years ago | (#37306340)

Yes but for the one who loses preparation still has met opportunity. Or something.

Re:Luck (1, Funny)

tsa (15680) | more than 2 years ago | (#37306316)

I don't usually complain about moderation but the person who modded me 'offtopic' doesn't have all his braincells wired correctly.

Incredible achievement? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302384)

Sounds more like a lucky observation, honestly. Right place, right time.

If this is anything like the career of many I know (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302470)

...then the person who finds something that is quite rare, something that everyone wishes they could have found, then the one who found it will be ignored and deemed "just lucky and useless" henceforth.

If they have a "degree", on the other hand, they will be mentioned in all scientific journals and praised for their wonderful work.

I'm not kidding. I see it happen to scientific minds in all categories almost every day. :)

Now the rest of her life will never measure up (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302598)

The truly sad part about this is that she'll have to do some really great things in her life to ever measure up with this accomplishment. Sad to think that it's all down hill from here for her for the rest of her life.

Re:Now the rest of her life will never measure up (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37303124)

The truly sad part about this is that she'll have to do some really great things in her life to ever measure up with this accomplishment. Sad to think that it's all down hill from here for her for the rest of her life.

Don't be such a pessimist! :-)

It's a great discovery for her to have made at such a young age, but that certainly doesn't have to mean "it's all down hill from here". The article says she's interested in pursuing a career in biochemistry; there's still masses of discovery to be made within the biochem field, so - maybe it's the optimist in me - but I'm sure she'll get on just fine in the rest of her academic life.

Darn (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#37302916)

She is 18 and already making scientific discoveries...

I am 25 and i'm still spending my weekends browsing slashdot!

Something strange in the article. (2)

dannycim (442761) | more than 2 years ago | (#37303106)

FTA: Fragmentation in comets is rarely observed, but can occur when they are closest to the sun and develop spectacular tales of gas, dust and ice particles. The tale originates from the icy core (or nucleus), so when it heats up, vapor from sublimating ices are outgassed into space, dislodging dust and other material.

Shouldn't that be "tails" and "tail", or some different definition of the word "tale" I wasn't previously aware of?

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