Astronomy student’s fiery ‘Old Faithful’ discovery earns national award


Unraveling an explosive mystery 570 million light-years away from Earth is an accomplishment belonging to the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy graduate student Anna Payne. Her discovery of a blackhole at the center of an alluring active galaxy has earned her American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award.

Payne’s detection appears to reclassify what astronomers originally thought were supernova that fueled periodic flares every 114 days at the core of what’s been dubbed the “Old Faithful” galaxy. ESO 253-3 is the galaxy’s scientific name, but a nickname after Yellowstone National Park’s famous geyser stuck because of its regular eruptive outbursts.

The AAS honor recognizes Payne’s exemplary student research presented at a poster session of the society’s 237th meeting held virtually in January 2021.

“I am incredibly grateful and honored to receive one of the medals this year. I send my heartfelt thanks to AAS and Dr. Carlson R. Chambliss for supporting the awards,” Payne said.

The flares are thought to be the first known case of a star being slowly ripped apart by the supermassive black hole at the center of ESO 253-3. Astronomers call these tidal disruption events, where the gravitational forces create intense tides that break the star apart into a stream of gas.

The transient event, called ASASSN-14ko, was first detected within the galaxy ESO 253-3 in 2014 by the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASASSN) 14-cm telescope at Haleakalā Observatory. Payne presented her discovery at AAS after stumbling over the flares in 2020 while examining ASASSN data as part of her doctoral thesis studying active galactic nuclei. Such periodic flares in active galaxies have been sought previously, but had never been detected this unambiguously and found to occur so often. Payne’s work could help expand information on supermassive blackholes and how they function.

This research is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.