A Rising Star in Astronomy
Grad student Rachael Beaton’s galactic discoveries earn international attention.
Posted May 7, 2008, 10:28 AM EST
Photo by Stephanie Gross
First-year graduate students aren’t usually given historic research assignments. But after years of waiting for the opportunity to make their first observation on the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Tucson, Ariz., whose construction was completed last fall, U.Va.’s astronomy faculty voted last fall to bestow the honor on first-year graduate student Rachael Beaton (Astronomy-Physics, Mathematics ’07, MS Astronomy ’10).
Beaton had made breakthrough discoveries before receiving her undergraduate degree. Beaton used the LBT— the world’s largest optical telescope in which the University shares ownership— to take images of the dwarf galaxy she had discovered in 2006.
“I was very flattered to be the first astronomer from U.Va. to receive data from the LBT,” says Beaton, a Jefferson Scholars Graduate Fellow.
“While realizing how significant it is to have the first U.Va. observations taken with the LBT, I suppose my main excitement is having the potential to learn so much more about the galaxy itself.”
Beaton found the unusual dwarf galaxy—dubbed Andromeda XIV—while conducting a survey of the large Andromeda galaxy (which scientists call “M31”), a Milky- Way neighbor about 2.5 million light-years from Earth and thought to be the largest of the “Local Group” of galaxies.
While most nearby dwarf galaxies appear to be satellites bound by gravity to larger, Local Group galaxies such as M31 or the Milky Way, Andromeda XIV seems to be moving too fast to be bound to either system. Andromeda XIV may be falling into the Local Group for the first time or even just passing through, making Andromeda XIV an “intergalactic rogue” with a unique life story compared to nearby star systems, says Beaton. Another possibility, she adds, is that M31 may be more massive and exert a much stronger gravitational pull than astronomers thought. Either result would be interesting, says her adviser Steven Majewski, professor of astronomy, because of what scientists might learn about the nature of dwarf galaxies and the evolution of galaxy systems in the Local Group. Beaton’s data from the LBT may help resolve the mystery.
Finding Andromeda XIV isn’t Beaton’s only contribution to the field. In the 1990s, M31’s status as a twin and research model for the Milky Way was shaken when astronomers, including Professor of Astronomy Michael Skrutskie, discovered that our home galaxy contained a bar-shaped formation of stars in the center.
Beaton settled the debate in 2005 when she found a similar bar in M31 using data from a large infrared survey of the sky led by Skrutskie. As a result, in March 2006 Beaton was invited to Marseilles, France, to work with world-renowned astronomer Lia Athanassoula, an expert in galactic bars. Beaton also presented her work at the Universitas 21 Undergraduate Research Conference in Brisbane, Australia.
Described by Majewski as a “phenomenal student” with enviable organizational skills, Beaton is committed to mentoring young scientists at the high school and college levels. She also has been active in the Cavalier Marching Band and the University’s chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi, a national music fraternity.
With at least four years of graduate studies ahead, Beaton is not making firm career plans but will continue studying M31 and Andromeda XIV. She loves doing research, and her discoveries have only fueled her scientific curiosity.
“Discoveries like these often pose more questions than they answer,” Beaton says. “So, what I felt at the initial moment of discovery was an overwhelming sense of the potential these could have in my field—a sort of wide-eyed awe at what these discoveries could do.”