Professor shines in star discovery

This picture was created to show how small our galaxy would look in comparison to the star discovered by Dr. John Bochanski.
This picture was created to show how small our galaxy would look in comparison to the star discovered by Dr. John Bochanski.

By Alyssa Naimoli

When Dr. John Bochanski, a new member of Rider’s physics and astronomy department, was a child, his grandfather used to point out the different constellations to him while they sat in the backyard looking up at the night sky.

The stars were simply lights in the sky to him then. But this was the beginning of Bochanski’s future in astronomy and the path that led him not only to Rider, but to discovering the two most distant stars in our galaxy.

“Despite its relatively boring name [the star] (ULAS J0015+01) is anything but boring,” said Bochanski. “It is located about 900,000 light years away from the Earth and is extremely bright, putting out at least 10,000 times the light emitted by our sun.”

His discoveries are very significant in furthering the understanding of our galaxy as well, colleagues say.

“The key here is that it’s not like he pointed a telescope out into the night sky and found something interesting one night,” said Dr. Alexander Grushow, chair of the Chemistry department.“This sort of discovery comes from analyzing massive amounts of existing data on millions of stars looking for particular signature signals and then taking a closer look at particularly promising targets. It takes a lot of patience to sift through that much information even if a computer is doing most of the analysis. Algorithms for the analysis still take time and energy to develop. The important feature is that this discovery will help theoretical astrophysicists develop a more complete model of how our galaxy was formed.”

Bochanski discovered this star while at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He worked with Professor Beth Wilman to create a new strategy to identify distant stars in our galaxy using “a combination of data from existing surveys, supplemented by observations with telescopes all over the world.”  They discovered the star about a year into the project, while in Tucson, Ariz.

“My initial reaction was ‘Sweet, we found a red giant!’” said Bochanski. “It wasn’t until after I got back from the trip that I realized we might have discovered the most distant star in our galaxy.”

A red giant is the rarest form of a red star. Usually the stars found are dwarfs. This star however was not only a red giant but also the most distant star discovered in the galaxy’s halo.

“The halo is a mostly spherical shroud of stars and small galaxies that are leftovers from the formation of our Milky Way,” said Bochanski. “We have known about the halo for decades, but our search is one of the first to identify stars this far out in the halo.”

Recent advances in technology and detectors allow astronomers to view large pieces of the night sky very efficiently, and have helped Bochanski and other scientists search for such stars.

When Bochanski was just 13, he read a newspaper article about the black hole in the center of the galaxy and thought it was fascinating “that an object like that could exist and it wasn’t science fiction.”

From that moment, he set out on the path that would take him exactly where he wanted to go. He became involved in the best astronomy programs he could find at schools such as Villanova University, University of Washington, MIT, Penn State and Haverford College.

This strong educational background helped Bochanski reach his dream of becoming an astronomer and sharing the mysteries of the night sky with people everywhere.

After the star’s first sighting in November, Bochanski assisted in publishing a paper about it the following June. The discovery was featured on the National Geographic and Scientific American websites and also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Astronomy has given Bochanski the opportunity to do what he loves while also having a pretty “out-of-this-world” profession. In addition to studying the stars, he attends astronomy conferences in “great locations” and has had the opportunity to travel to a variety of countries.

“Oh, I also have an asteroid named after me,” Bochanski added.

And this is still only the beginning of his career. Now, he has the opportunity to teach and inform more young astronomers of the opportunities before them and the wonders of the night sky.

“We are having a special lecture and star party here on campus during the evening of Nov. 7,” said Bochanski. “I’ll be giving a short talk about astronomy, and we will have telescopes set up to check out the night sky. I hope to see everyone there.”

Faculty Lecture Series 

John Bochanski, assistant professor of physics, will present “Astronomy in the Era of Large Surveys” on Oct. 30 in the Fireside Lounge of the Bart Luedeke Center. Lunch begins at 11:30 a.m., followed by the talk at noon. To attend, RSVP to


Printed in the 10/15/14 edition.

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