Tue Aug 5, 3:51 PM ET
A Dutch primary school teacher and amateur astronomer has discovered
what some are calling a "cosmic ghost," a strange, gaseous object with
a hole in the middle that may represent a new class of astronomical
The teacher, Hanny van Arkel, discovered the object while volunteering
in the Galaxy Zoo project, which enlists the help of members of the
public to classify galaxies online.
"At first, we had no idea what it was. It could have been in our solar
system, or at the edge of the universe," Yale University
astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski, a member and co-founder of the Galaxy
Zoo team, said in a statement.
The find, nicknamed "Hanny's Voorwerp" (Dutch for object), soon had
scientists training their telescopes on the object.
"What we saw was really a mystery," Schawinski said. "The Voorwerp
didn't contain any stars."
Made entirely of very hot gas, the eerie green object is illuminated
by remnant light from the nearby galaxy IC 2497.
"We think that in the recent past the galaxy IC 2497 hosted an
enormously bright quasar," Schawinski said.
He said light from the past still illuminates the ghostly object, even
though the quasar shut down some 100,000 years ago and the galaxy's
black hole went quiet.
"It's this light echo that has been frozen in time for us to observe,"
said Chris Lintott, a co-organizer of Galaxy Zoo at Oxford University
in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.
Researchers will soon use the Hubble Space Telescope to get a closer look.
"It's amazing to think that this object has been sitting in the
archives for decades and that amateur volunteers can help by spotting
things like this online," van Arkel said in a statement.
Van Arkel is one of more than 150,000 amateur astronomers who have
assisted in classifying more than 1 million galaxies over the past
year as part of the Galaxy Zoo project.
The next stage of Galaxy Zoo will ask volunteers to search for more
unusual astronomical objects.
Galaxy Zoo can be found at www.galaxyzoo.org .