Students shed light on dark matter

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The universe just got a little stranger, thanks to research in which a teacher and student from Oil City High School in Venango County contributed.

Astronomy teacher Tim Spuck and 11th-grade student Matt Walentosky took part in the Spitzer-NOAO Observing Program for Teachers and Students. While comparing observations made in infrared and visible light, the team comprising astronomers, educators and students found dark matter in the accretion disk around WZ Sagittae, a binary star in the northern constellation Sagitta. Dark matter is a form of matter that does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation to be observed directly.

Their data also suggests accretion disks, the hot gas that accumulates around a variety of astronomical objects -- from degenerate stars in energetic binary systems to supermassive black holes at the hearts of active galaxies -- are likely to be much larger than previously believed.

The findings, presented Jan. 9 at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas, may force astronomers to revise the prevailing theories on the formation and composition of accretion disks.

"This discovery suggests that our current model for accretion disks of all kinds is wrong," team member Donald Hoard of the Spitzer Science Center said.

WZ Sge is made up of a white dwarf star that accretes gas from a companion star. As the stars orbit a common center of gravity every 81 minutes, gas from the companion falls toward the white dwarf, forming the swirl of material, or accretion disk.

Other Oil City High students who attended the AAS meeting and participated in other astronomical studies were: Danielle Yeager, grade 12; Alix Holcomb, grade 11; Cale McClintock, grade 12; Jen Butchart, grade 11; Nick Kelley, grade 12; and Alexis McCool, grade 12.

Pete Zapadka can be reached at or 412-263-1857.


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