'Little Green Men' set to invade Abington

Documentary Abington Little Green Men
Credit: Penn State

ABINGTON, Pa. — To many, a film titled “Little Green Men” featuring mysterious pulsars and the largest fully steerable radio telescope on the planet might suggest a blockbuster sci-fi fantasy. But that's far from the truth, as viewers will learn this week when the hour-long documentary will be screened at Penn State Abington.

Physics professors Ann and Carl Schmiedekamp, director/producer Sarah Kolberg and astrophysicist/producer Maura McLaughlin will introduce their film and field questions after the screening. 

The documentary tracks the discovery of pulsars — rotating neutron stars at the end of life — by high school scientists.

Ann Schmiedekamp calls pulsars “weird beasts, dense objects, stars that didn’t quite become black holes. But when the orientation is right, depending on its rotation on its axis, a pulsar is an accurate timing device.”

Carl Schmiedekamp says that the first planets discovered outside our solar system were detected via pulsar.

The film’s website describes "little green men," or LGM-1, as the nickname first given to an unknown radio signal discovered in 1967. Once it became clear that the signal was not an alien communication, but rather radio waves emitted by a collapsed star, the name pulsar was created to describe this newly discovered stellar object.

Here’s where the locally raised McLaughlin, a graduate of Penn State, comes in. Bolstered by a grant from the National Science Foundation, she established the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, a collaboration between West Virginia University and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s massive Green Bank Telescope (GBT). The largest of its kind in the world, GBT weighs 17 million tons and is as long as a football field and taller than the Statue of Liberty.

During maintenance of its massive wheelbase in 2007, GBT continued to pick up signals from the sky, collecting valuable data that McLaughlin has used to teach high school students how to make astronomical findings. To date, this project has inspired students in schools across the East Coast to discover no fewer than seven new pulsars, noteworthy enough for them to publish the findings in professional scientific journals.

“Little Green Men” tracks these students and the scientists who inspired them. And the Schmiedekamps are at the center of these studies. Carl Schmiedekamp attended a week-long science camp last summer that focused on the search for pulsars.

Ann Schmiedekamp, who has a close affiliation with NASA, said, “Penn State Abington is a hub to interest and train high school students to draw similar data analysis regarding pulsars. We want to make people aware of these opportunities. We actually have undergraduates here at the college tutoring local high school students. Our undergrads undergo serious training and have to pass a rigorous test to qualify. And then they do their training online, so the possibilities are endless.”

The aim of the “Little Green Men” program, co-sponsored by Penn State Abington Cultural & Community Events, is to encourage a new generation of young people to consider careers in astrophysics and related fields of science.

If You Go

"Little Green Men" will be screened at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 13, in 112 Woodland Building at Penn State Abington. Admission to the program is free.

Penn State Abington, formerly the Ogontz campus, offers baccalaureate degrees in 18 majors at its suburban location just north of Philadelphia. Nearly half of our 4,000 students complete all four years at Abington, with opportunities in undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more. The Lions Gate residence hall will open in August.