Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Schoolteacher Discovers ‘Cosmic Ghost’

A Dutch schoolteacher has discovered a mysterious and unique astronomical object through the Galaxy Zoo project, which enables members of the public to take part in astronomy research online.

Hanny van Arkel, a primary schoolteacher from the Netherlands, came across the image of a strange gaseous object with a hole in the center that has been described as a “cosmic ghost” while using the Web site to classify images of galaxies.

She posted about the image – which quickly became known as Hanny’s ‘Voorwerp’ after the Dutch for 'object’ – on the Galaxy Zoo forum and the astronomers who run the site began to investigate. They soon realized the potential significance of what they think is a new class of astronomical object and will now use the Hubble Space Telescope to get a closer look at ‘Hanny’s Voorwerp.’

“At first we thought it was a distant galaxy,” said Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, a team member, “but we realised there were no stars in it so that it must be a cloud of gas.” What was particularly puzzling to astronomers was that the gas was so hot – more than 10,000 degrees Celsius – when there were no stars in the vicinity to heat it up.

“We now think that what we’re looking at is light from a quasar – the bright, stormy centre of a distant galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole,” said Lintott. “The quasar itself is no longer visible to us, but its light continues to travel through space and the Voorwerp is a massive ‘light echo’ produced as this light strikes the gas.”

“This discovery really shows how citizen science has come of age in the Internet world,” said Dr. William “Bill” Keel, professor of astronomy at The University of Alabama, and a team member.

“Hanny’s attentiveness alerted us not only to a peculiar object, but to a window into the cosmic past which might have eluded us for a long time otherwise,” Keel said. “Trying to understand the processes operating here has proven to be a fascinating challenge, involving a whole range of astrophysical techniques and instruments around the world and beyond. This has also been some of the most rewarding astronomy I’ve done in years!”

Keel is the principal investigator on the Hubble approved project to look more closely at the object.

The black hole at the center of the galaxy, IC 2497, is now ‘turned off’ – which is why the quasar has gone dim – but around 100,000 years ago the quasar was bright enough to have been visible from the Earth through a small, inexpensive telescope.

“From the point of view of the Voorwerp the galaxy looks as bright as it would have done before the black hole turned off – it’s this light echo that has been ‘frozen in time’ for us to observe,” Lintott said. “It’s rather like examining the scene of a crime where, although we can’t see them, we know the culprit must be lurking somewhere nearby in the shadows.”

“IC 2497 is so close that if the quasar was still shining today, on a good night you could probably see it with a small telescope,” said team member Kevin Schawinski of Yale University. “The nearest active quasar, called 3C 273, is 1.7 billion light years further away.”

Smaller light echoes have been noted around supernovae before but never anything of the scale and shape of the Voorwerp. As yet nobody has a sensible explanation for the hole that runs through its center.

“It’s amazing to think that this object has been sitting in the archives for decades and that amateur volunteers can help by spotting things like this online,” said Hanny van Arkel. “It was a fantastic present to find out on my 25th birthday that we will get observational time on the Hubble Space Telescope to follow-up this discovery.”

Dr. Dan Smith of Liverpool John Moores University and Peter Herbert of the University of Hertfordshire were observing using the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes in La Palma, Spain, when word of the discovery filtered through.

“When we got the news about Hanny's Voorwerp we were intrigued to find out what it was, and, fortunately, we were able to slew the telescopes round and get some great images and spectra to study it,” said Smith. “It was only later that we heard the story about how it had been discovered; it's inspirational that Hanny picked out this object from Galaxy Zoo in her spare time and nobody had ever seen anything like it before.”

During the last year, 50 million classifications of galaxies have been submitted on one million objects at by more than 150,000 armchair astronomers from all over the world.

The next stage of Galaxy Zoo will ask volunteers for more detailed classifications, making it easier to identify more unusual objects such as Hanny's Voorwerp.

Notes to editors
• The Galaxy Zoo team includes scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Portsmouth and Johns Hopkins University, and Fingerprint Digital Media of Belfast. Key contributors to this stage of the project were William “Bill” Keel from The University of Alabama, Dan Smith (Liverpool John Moores University) Peter Herbert and Matt Jarvis (University of Hertfordshire) and Nicola Bennert (University of California Riverside).
• Details of the discovery are included in a paper submitted by the team to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
• Images related to the project can be viewed at

• The new digital images used in Galaxy Zoo were taken using the robotic Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in New Mexico. For more on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey visit For full details of those involved go to

Pete Wilton | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves
24.10.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic

24.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

24.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>