Feature Stories

Outrageously Luminous

Undergraduate discovers galaxies brighter than any previously known
  • The Large Millimeter Telescope points up to the sky at dawn.

A UMass undergraduate, working with astronomy faculty members, recently made discoveries that dazzled the astronomical world and have given us exciting new insights into galaxy formation.

Astronomers are used to describing the brightest galaxies in the cosmos as “ultra-luminous” or “hyper-luminous.” Kevin Harrington ’16 has discovered eight galaxies so much brighter than any previously known that they called for a new term: “outrageously luminous.”

Harrington’s adventure began in 2013 with a somewhat impulsive decision to serve a summer internship with the Five College Department of Astronomy. A year later, he became the first undergraduate allowed to use the university’s 50-meter diameter Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), situated on a mountaintop in central Mexico. Harrington then worked with his advisors to layer the information he had gathered in Mexico with data from two satellite telescopes. He soon realized that he was onto something.

“The galaxies that we found were not predicted by theory to exist; they’re too big and too bright, so no one really looked for them before,” says Professor Min Yun of the astronomy department. “Knowing that they really do exist and how much they’ve grown in the four billion years since the Big Bang helps us estimate how much material was there for them to work with. Their existence teaches us about the process of collecting matter and of galaxy formation, and suggests that it is more complex than many people thought,” says Yun. Harrington was the lead author of the report on his findings in the prestigious Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. He graduated in May with a double major in astronomy and neuroscience and is now pursuing a doctorate at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Bonn, continuing his research on galaxy evolution.

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Photo: The 50-meter diameter Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), shown in the banner image above, is the largest, most sensitive single-aperture instrument in the world for studying star formation. Operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica, it stands in the Mexican central state of Puebla on the summit of Sierra Negra, a 15,000-foot extinct volcano, a companion peak to the nation’s highest mountain.