- ivy gosh
- Science reporter, La Palma
Astronomers can detect collisions of dead suns, known as neutron stars, for the first time thanks to a powerful new telescope.
Colliding neutron stars is fundamental to our understanding of the universe.
They are believed to have created heavy metals that shaped stars and planets, including our own, billions of years ago.
The light from the collisions can only be seen for a few nights, so the telescope must be agile to detect them.
Astronomers noticed such a collision in 2017, but they came across it largely by chance.
The British-built Transit Optical Gravitational Wave Observatory (GOTO), located above the clouds on the volcanic island of La Palma, Spain, will now systematically track them.
“When a really good discovery comes along, everyone gets their hands dirty to make the most of it,” says Professor Danny Stigs of the University of Warwick in England, based in La Palma.
“Speed is of the essence. We’re looking for something short-lived – shortly before it’s gone.”
Neutron stars are so heavy that a teaspoon of their matter weighs four billion tons.
The telescope allows astronomers, in practical terms, to see its “inner contents.”
So you can get a clear view of the sky, the telescope is located atop a mountain, which houses dozens of instruments of all shapes and sizes, each studying a different phenomenon.
When they open their double domes, they reveal two black batteries of eight cylindrical telescopes strapped together – structures much like rocket launchers. Each battery covers the patch of sky overhead by rotating vertically and horizontally quickly.
A neutron star is a dead sun that collapsed under its immense weight, smashing the atoms that once made it shine. They have such a strong attraction that they are attracted to each other. Sooner or later, they collide and merge.
When this happens, they create a flash of light, powerful shock ripples across the universe. It causes everything in the universe, including the atoms within each of us, to sway imperceptibly.
The shock wave, called a gravitational wave, deforms space. And when it’s discovered on Earth, the new telescope gets to work to find the exact location of the flame.
The operators’ goal is to locate it within hours, or even minutes, of detecting the gravitational wave.
They take pictures of the sky and then digitally remove the stars, planets, and galaxies that were there the night before.
Any point of light that was not there before could be a collision of neutron stars.
This usually takes days and weeks, but now needs to be done in real time. It is a big task, which is performed by computer programs.
“You might think these outbursts are very energetic, very luminous, and they should be easy,” says astrophysics professor Joe Lyman.
“But we have to search a hundred million stars for the only thing we care about.”
“And we have to do it very quickly because the body will be gone in a couple of days.”
The team is working with other astronomers to study the collision in more detail.
Once the collision is identified, they turn to larger and more powerful telescopes around the world to analyze the collision in more detail and at different wavelengths.
This process “tells us about physics to the extreme,” Lyman explains.
The mountaintop brings astronomers a little closer to the stars. With the telescope, they have a new way to explore the universe, says Kendall Ackley, instrument scientist at GOTO.
According to her, traditional astronomy was all about “being lucky.” But this is changing.
“Now we are no longer waiting for new discoveries. Instead, we are told where to find them and to discover what is out there in the universe piece by piece.”
Have you seen our new videos on Youtube? Subscribe to our channel!
“Friendly zombie fanatic. Analyst. Coffee buff. Professional music specialist. Communicator.”