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Galaxies Far, Far, Far Away

As a UMass student, Kevin Harrington ’16 found bright new galaxies that produce one star every hour.

Kevin Harrington, UMass Amherst astronomy student.
Photo by
John Solem

Outrageously luminous and 10 billion years old—facts sound like hyperbole when describing rising astronomer Kevin Harrington’s galactic discovery. But they are, in fact, facts. Harrington began his quest toward finding eight new galaxies while slogging through massive amounts of all-sky images as an undergraduate researcher in 2013

He created an algorithm that scouted for specks of luminosity in the images. And then, following a scientific hunch, Harrington, his astronomy advisor, and J. Ryan Cybulski ’16 PhD traveled to an isolated mountaintop in Mexico, home to the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), one of the biggest, most sensitive instruments in the world for studying star formation, to confirm that the eight superbright spots were galaxies. Harrington was the first undergraduate student to use the LMT, operated by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics. He documented his eureka moment as the lead author of an article in one of the most prestigious journals on astronomy and astrophysics, another coup for the young scholar.  

Finding the galaxies—billions of light years from Earth and brighter than hundreds of trillions of stars—is as extraordinary as finding the hole of a needle in a haystack. The discoveries provide new insight into the formation of galaxies and the origins of the universe. Harrington, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in astronomy and psychological and brain sciences, will continue his studies in a PhD program at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. 

Professor of Astronomy Min S. Yun, Harrington’s advisor, says Harrington’s story is almost too good to be true. Besides his academic accomplishments, he has led the campus’s first nondenominational meditation group, played drums in The New Africa House Ensemble, and gained inner peace through practicing Nichiren Buddhism. Says Yun, “He is nothing but genuine enthusiasm and no pretentiousness or envy.”