Having an eye to the sky earns student photo fame

By Matt Terry, January 19, 2012

    The galaxy known as SDSS J083909.27+450747.7, which has properties similar to our own Milky Way, was photographed by master's student Brittany McDonald for researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. The image is being used with research making headlines around the world. Image by Brittany McDonald, Armin Rest and Jeffrey Newman.
By now you've probably seen it: the image of a distant galaxy, illustrating recent news
stories, announcing researchers had finally determined the exact colour of Earth's Milky
Way galaxy: white.

What you might not know is that the image - of a galaxy with the flowery
moniker SDSS J083909.27+450747.7 - was taken by McMaster's Brittany McDonald.

McDonald, a master's student in astronomy, was working with the Mayall
Telescope, located at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona, in
December. It was then that she was called by University of Pittsburgh researchers
who needed a last-minute image of a galaxy with properties similar to those of the
Milky Way.

"Observation time on the telescope is hard to come by and is allocated well in
advance," said McDonald, who also completed her undergraduate degree in physics at
McMaster. "It's quite common for researchers to call each other and ask for favours like
that, especially when time is an issue."

What isn't common, however, is those favours receiving international attention.

The University of Pittsburgh's Jeffrey Newman and Timothy Licquia used the image
taken at Kitt Peak with the announcement that they had accurately determined the
colour of the Milky Way.

"The attention it received was completely unexpected," said McDonald.

The story has made headlines around the world, and the image has been used by
MSNBC, CNN, Discovery News, FOX, space.com, WPTV Florida, The Epoch Times and
many other media outlets.

The researchers describe the Milky Way as "a very pure white, almost mirroring a fresh
snowfall."

McDonald is looking forward to completing her master's degree in August, and said she
plans to show off her famous photo on her computer desktop.