A Molokaʻi High School alumna has co-authored a recently published astronomy paper. She captured the first look at magnetic fields within the iconic and beautiful Horsehead Nebula, with data she gathered in 2018.
Mallory Go was a freshman at Molokaʻi High in 2017 when she proposed a research project in astronomy that would become groundbreaking.
“I randomly did a search for nebulas. I don’t know why I chose nebulas, thinking back now, but I saw the Horsehead Nebula and there’s very few but very stunning images of it. And I don’t think there’s a lot of research around it, so I chose that as my project and then I applied to Maunakea Scholars program and I was very pleasantly surprised when I got in,” Go said.
Maunakea Scholars allows high school students interested in astronomy to propose research and get competitive telescope time atop Maunakea.
Go was connected with her mentor, Dr. Harriet Parsons. Parsons is an astronomer with the East Asian Observatory and head of operations at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.
“Mallory herself was interested in the Horsehead Nebula and she was the one that came to me saying, ‘Let’s investigate this further,’ and I thought, ‘Fantastic, yeah, absolutely,'” Parsons said.
A nebula is a cloud of dust and gas that Parsons described as a stellar nursery. It’s a place where stars are sometimes born, under the right conditions.
With not much existing research on the iconically-shaped Horsehead Nebula, Go was the first to propose looking at the region in polarized light. It’s a technique astronomers use to reveal the magnetic fields within a nebula.
She investigated some particularly dense areas within the horse’s head that could indicate the beginnings of a star formation.
“We thought there might be stars there because of the gravitational pull of that very dense lump in the throat. And stars form because of that very strong gravitational pressure and that makes it so compressed that eventually become a star,” Go said.
Parsons says it appears no stars are actually forming within the nebula as of now, but the research is no less significant.
“When we do astronomy, we are looking back in time. This star is 1500 light years away. I don’t know what’s happened since then in that environment. Perhaps another part of this region has another star that might influence it. I think it looks pretty stable long term, but things may change,” Parsons said.
Go and other researchers found that the horse’s head shape is due to the forces of nearby stars and nebulae, as indicated by the magnetic fields they mapped. The paper she co-authored with Parsons and other astronomers was recently published in the Astronomical Journal.
Go graduated from Molokaʻi High in 2021 and is now entering her junior year at Brown University. Go is the daughter of a pharmacist and a dietician on Molokaʻi, and is pursuing a degree in public health. She encourages other students to not be limited by their career goals but instead take opportunities to study what interests them.
“I really think that you should pursue things that you just think are cool and interesting because you only might get to do it once — like this. So definitely advise people to pursue their interests, no matter if it’s outside of their field or not,” Go said.