Can kids crack cosmic mystery?

A peculiar object in our galaxy known as the ‘cosmic corkscrew’ may reveal secrets about the nature of black holes. The fantastic team of citizen scientists watching it includes school students!

Image: Flickr/roger.karlsson

An international project called Global Jet Watch wants to understand what happens when matter falls into a black hole. The black hole they are looking at is part of a system of stars called the ‘cosmic corkscrew’.

Image: ESA

The cosmic corkscrew is a ‘micro-quasar’ – a black hole and star that are really close together. The black hole gradually consumes the star, spitting out jets of energetic matter.

Image: Flickr/Lord Biro

The black hole in a micro-quasar pulls matter into an ‘accretion disc’ around itself. As the disc spirals inwards, like water down a plughole, the matter gets hotter and more energetic. Eventually it gets so excited that it explodes away in jets.

Image: Flickr/Melissa Emmons

Some aspects of a micro-quasar, such as the shape of the jets, can change rapidly. To really understand the cosmic corkscrew’s behaviour we need to observe it constantly.

scoping at night
Image: Flickr/makelessnoise

So we can keep an eye on it 24 hours a day, four telescopes have been built in four different time zones around the world. This way, at least one of the sites will always have the dark sky that observations need.

building dome
Image: Global Jet Watch

Each telescope is built on a school site. The four schools are near Sydney in Australia, Santiago in Chile, Bangalore in India and Cape Town in South Africa.

GJW kids

Image: Global Jet Watch

The project gives local students the chance to be citizen scientists – to do some real cutting-edge research – and talk to leading scientists and astronomers.

Katherine Blundell is an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford. She investigates immensely energetic objects in space called ‘jets’ and set up the Global Jet Watch project. I asked her about the cosmic corkscrew and Global Jet Watch.


How did Global Jet Watch begin?

‘Global Jet Watch grew out of the desire to watch the cosmic corkscrew round the clock. We’re looking at the faint visible light it emits (other projects are studying it in different wavelengths), so it has to be studied at night. Realising that putting telescopes around the world so there will always be one of them in darkness is how it all began.’


Why did Global Jet Watch become a citizen-science project?

‘I find it a great privilege and a lot of fun doing scientific research. I wanted to share this privilege with others. It seemed to me that schools would be wonderful places to have observatories.’




What’s the best thing about working with the schools?

‘The boundless enthusiasm! We’ve found some really motivated teachers who wanted to bring real science into their schools. They have inspired students, and I’m really passionate about giving students these opportunities to engage with science, especially those from less privileged backgrounds.’

What do you do with the images collected by the schools?

‘The images are sent to Oxford over the internet and we immediately back them up. The images are unique and we’d hate to lose anything. Then we verify and test the data so the scientific analysis can begin. The images are the basis of the astrophysics research we do – studying how matter behaves when it is nearby a black hole.’



What have been the major challenges of the Global Jet Watch project so far?

‘Carrying heavy tools to the different sites really weighs down my suitcase. It gets fearsomely hot in India working during the day, and it gets astonishingly cold when observing in the domes at night, particularly in Chile. It would also help when I visit my Chile school if my Spanish could improve. I’m working on it…’




What will be done with your research?

‘Governments need to preserve tropical forests with policies that are scientifically sound. Otherwise they will not survive economic pressures or changes in political systems. Governments, businesses and people in general have a great responsibility in helping to preserve tropical forests. Our research will help us know how to accomplish this.’


Is ‘citizen science’ the future of astronomy? I asked some experts for their views…


Stephen Hawking, Cosmologist

‘I am excited to know that school children are working at the forefront of black hole research, a field that is very close to my heart. My advice to them is never to give up, even if they don’t find answers. The pursuit of knowledge should appeal to young people of all ages who are not afraid to ask “why are things the way they are?”‘


Kevin Schawinski, Professor Kevin Schawinski, Founder of Galaxy Zoo

‘People are better than computers at recognising patterns – this talent is the only way to solve certain problems. The best way to classify millions of galaxies, for example, is to recruit people around the world – that’s how Galaxy Zoo works. Global Jet Watch similarly gets children to make observations that wouldn’t otherwise be possible and brings science to life.’


Larry Krumenaker, discoverer of the cosmic corkscrew

‘I have vivid memories of scrutinising large glass photographic plates of star fields with a microscope. It was mind-numbing work, but that’s how I discovered the cosmic corkscrew. Technology today makes some observations easier, but you still need human eyes to find something interesting. You don’t get many home nuclear physicists or genetic biologists, but astronomy is great for citizen scientists.’


A student of Global Jet Watch

‘Global Jet Watch is a great opportunity to learn about telescopes, the stars and our fascinating universe. I’ve gotten better at astronomy and I like knowing that my work is important to an international project. Global Jet Watch makes me think astronomy could be a really fun career.’


This article was originally published as an interactive document in the Antenna gallery at the Science Museum.

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