Student to research black holes

Marshall University student Rae Stanley will be borrowing time on one of North America’s most powerful telescopes this year to study black holes in galaxies as far away as 6.8 billion light years.

Stanley, a junior majoring in physics from Ona, West Virginia, plans to use the spectrograph of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), which is located in Safford, Arizona, known for its clear night skies. This fall, she’ll be traveling there and collecting data to determine if black holes can create new atoms.

The premise of her study is this: According to research, the nuclear process of rapid neutron capture is responsible for more than half of the heavy elements found in the universe. Right now, scientists believe that supernovae are the only things in the universe that can create these heavy elements, but Stanley is looking to test the proposal that they can be created when supermassive black holes take in too much matter and shoot it out in jets of particles, which typically occurs at about 10 percent the speed of light. She’s researching whether rapid neutron capture is occurring there as well.

Finding evidence of rapid neutron capture in other phenomena would change scientists’ understanding of important nuclear processes and help them better understand the history of the universe. Stanley’s research is speculative but could produce useful information whether this theory pans out or not, said her advisor, Jon Saken, an associate professor of physics at Marshall.

“Our whole understanding of the development of galaxies and the early universe is based on the conclusion that elements are made only in stars,” Saken said. “The only exception was during the Big Bang, when helium and trace amounts of lithium and beryllium were made.  But that is it.  Yet, early on active galaxies dominated the universe.  If they could make some of the heavier elements, that changes a lot of ideas and models.

“The suggestion that they could is the speculative part. Rae wanted to try testing that. It is very ambitious. This is more of a graduate-level project. Very, very few undergraduates would attempt something like this, and very few would have access to the telescope time to do so.”

Stanley said she landed on the idea during talks with Saken and faculty from other area institutions while at the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team training at Green Bank in September of 2016. Saken said he is grateful to his connection at the VATT, who helped Stanley get a deal on the telescope time, a rare opportunity. She still needs $5,000 for the project.

Stanley’s plan to measure the black hole masses “is a very clever way to do some useful science at the same time,” Saken said. “The type of active galaxy she is looking at is still not completely understood.  Measuring the masses will help in that regard.”

For more information about the project, or to contribute to Stanley’s expenses for the project, contact Saken at