Young astronomer has names in the stars

A young Irish astronomer is managing to keep his feet on the ground after learning he is to have an asteroid named after him.

Young astronomer has names in the stars

The honour is being bestowed on Cork Leaving Certificate student Cormac Larkin, who picked up the top astronomy prize at last week’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Los Angeles.

He has developed a new method to discover rare OB stars, the biggest and brightest types of star, in a galaxy over 50,000 light years from Earth. Their very bright ultraviolet light is blocked by our atmosphere, but his research combines observational and computational aspects of astronomy with data science to find new ones.

The project won him the most prestigious award in his field, the $1,000 (around €900) joint award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the American Astronomical Society.

But it also scooped a $1,500 second prize in the ISEF physics and astronomy category, an accolade for which recipients also have an asteroid named in their honour.

“It’s a fairly exclusive thing, there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids, but only 12,000 have been named after people,” said a delighted Cormac after he was honoured on his return to school at Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown.

“My work is really a mix of observational and computational work, but there’s also a lot of computer science involved,” he explained.

Cormac plans to publish his research in academic journals, but he is looking forward in the meantime to finishing his Leaving Certificate. He hopes to study astrophysics at third level after he gets his results in August.

His will not be the only Irish name being added to the list of asteroids, however, as another Leaving Certificate student also won a second prize in her category at ISEF.

Caolann Brady from St Wolstan’s Community College in Celbridge, Co Kildare, was honoured in the biomedical and health science category for her project which identified humming and breathing techniques to help treat asthma. She was at the event in LA, where 1,800 young scientists from 75 countries showcased their research after winning the top prize at Ireland’s SciFest last November.

Cormac won first prize in the chemical, physical and mathematical science category at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. His work has identified 26 candidate OB stars, a 10% increase in the known population in the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy.

Using a two-metre diameter telescope in Australia, all seven of those surveyed to date to within the instrument’s accuracy have been confirmed. His research will be furthered over the next year through work on the southern hemisphere’s largest telescope, after he was recently awarded time on the 10m Southern African Large Telescope.

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