YSU’s Space Quest

By Morgan Petronelli

Space is a vast place containing objects, occurrences and forces so foreign to this world that new discoveries are being made daily. Astronomers are on a quest to find out more about the mysterious unknown located in the depths of space.

Youngstown State University is no stranger to harboring successful individuals whose accomplishments and accolades distinguish them from others, especially when it comes to a few research astronomers.

Particularly, two research astronomers who teach in the Astronomy and Physics department at YSU have earned the spotlight for their discoveries made in space.

John Feldmeier and Patrick Durrell are colleagues and friends that have made discoveries both together and independently by breaking the mold and utilizing their research capabilities.

Durrell, associate professor at YSU and director of the Ward Beecher Planetarium, says his research specialization generally involves studying stars and star clusters in nearby galaxies, along with stars that get ripped out of galaxies sometimes referred to as “intergalactic stars” or “orphan stars.”

“I study galaxies in a variety of ways to try to understand how they work, how galaxies form and how they evolve,” Durrell said.

Durrell has made multiple discoveries over the course of his career as an astronomer, but he claims his most notable one was the discovery of a dwarf galaxy that gained some media attention in 2005.

Durrell and Feldmeier were a part of a team of astronomers who used their allotted time on the Hubble Space Telescope to study an area of a nearby cluster of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster.

He stated that this galaxy cluster is the closest in proximity to the Earth at an estimated 50 million light years away. Specifically, Durrell said the team was tasked with analyzing the space between the galaxies in the Virgo Cluster.

“Galaxies run into each other. When they do that, sometimes some stars get ejected because of gravity, and we were trying to search for those stars,” Durrell said.

When they retrieved the data, Durrell and the rest of the team were expecting little orphan stars, but instead found something quite the contrary.

“In the middle of our data, quite unexpected was a little dwarf galaxy right in the middle,” Durrell said. “It’s not a universe-shattering discovery, but it’s one of those things where ‘Oh we discovered a new galaxy by the sake of luck.’”

Durrell said they received a bit of local press after he and the rest of his team wrote a research paper on their findings and sent it to an anonymous “Referee”, who reads through the paper in order to establish if it is written well enough to be published.

Feldmeier, associate professor at YSU, said he is currently working on a project called HETDEX where they are conducting an experiment in the search of dark energy. Aside from that, Feldmeier was a part of a project with fellow collaborators from Cleveland that discovered an exoplanet. Feldmeier described them as planets orbiting other stars.

Feldmeier discovered that one of the objects in his data was a planet by the transit method – when a planet passes in front of a star and the brightness of the star drops a tiny amount. By examining the object for months and calculating when it passes in front of a star, the diminished brightness can help determine if that object is a planet.

“The problem in the way you have to do this is you have to search for thousands and thousands of stars,” Feldmeier said. “You have to take pictures of them constantly and wait for this magic thing to happen.”

The Kepler project, which uses a telescope in space to find other stars, followed up Feldmeier’s data and later confirmed it was a planet. He revealed that he named the exoplanet after his old dog Winston, which he and his fellow astronomers joked about until they finally settled on the name.

“It was a very exciting project because it’s not very often that you get to lead a project where you can find planets around other stars,” said Feldmeier. “You can do some pretty amazing science even at places like YSU.”