Dutch Teacher Stumbles Upon A Space 'Ghost' A Dutch primary school teacher has accidentally discovered what some are calling a cosmic space 'ghost' — a strange greenish, gaseous object with a hole in the middle that may represent a new class of astronomical phenomena.
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Dutch Teacher Stumbles Upon A Space 'Ghost'

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Dutch Teacher Stumbles Upon A Space 'Ghost'

Dutch Teacher Stumbles Upon A Space 'Ghost'

Dutch Teacher Stumbles Upon A Space 'Ghost'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93456780/93465301" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hanny van Arkel, the Dutch primary schoolteacher who discovered a mysterious new astronomical object. Edd Edmondson hide caption

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Edd Edmondson

"Hanny's Voorwerp" is a green blob of gas believed to be a "light echo" from the bright, stormy centre of a distant galaxy that has now gone dim. Dan Smith, Peter Herbert, Matt Jarvis & the ING hide caption

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Dan Smith, Peter Herbert, Matt Jarvis & the ING

"Hanny's Voorwerp" is a green blob of gas believed to be a "light echo" from the bright, stormy centre of a distant galaxy that has now gone dim.

Dan Smith, Peter Herbert, Matt Jarvis & the ING

A Dutch primary school teacher has accidentally discovered what some are calling a cosmic space "ghost" — a strange, greenish, gaseous object with a hole in the middle that may represent a new type of astronomical phenomena.

The teacher, Hanny van Arkel, stumbled upon the cosmic object in 2007 while doing volunteer work for Galaxy Zoo, a Web site that enlists the public's help in identifying galaxies. Van Arkel, 25, says she got involved with Galaxy Zoo because she's a fan of Brian May, the guitarist from the rock band Queen, who also volunteers.

The Zoo sought out volunteers because it had a backlog of celestial images but almost no computers that could process the images. Van Arkel was one of 150,000 volunteers who assisted in classifying more than 1 million galaxies over the past year.

During one of her assignments, the armchair astronomer says she saw something that "looked like a regular galaxy but much bluer." Van Arkel tells Scott Simon that she had no idea her discovery was so important until she spoke with Galaxy Zoo's scientists, affectionately called Zoo Keepers.

The cosmic object has been nicknamed "Hanny's Voorwerp." The greenish Voorwerp does not contain any stars and is made entirely of very hot gas. It is illuminated by remnant light from a nearby galaxy.

"At first we thought it was a distant galaxy, but we realized there were no stars in it so that it must be a cloud of gas," Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, who helped launch Galaxy Zoo, says in a press release.

He says astronomers think it may be light from a quasar, "the bright, stormy center of a distant galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole."

"The quasar itself is no longer visible to us, but its light continues to travel through space and the Voorwerp is a massive 'light echo' produced as this light strikes the gas," Lintott says in the statement.

When asked how her students reacted to their teacher's newfound stardom, Van Arkel says, "I've had a lot of e-mails and messages from my students, from people I haven't spoken to in years, from people I haven't spoken to ever in my life. It's fun."

And she says she'll keep searching the skies.

"It's not that I think that next week I will discover something else, but there's Galaxy Zoo 2 coming, so they still need us around and I will surely be involved," Van Arkel says.