Is Europe entering the golden age of astronomy?

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The largest astronomical network in Europe brings together around twenty telescopes and telescope networks. Credit: © vchal, Shutterstock

Groundbreaking discoveries in gravitational waves, black holes, cosmic rays, neutrinos and other areas of advanced astronomy may soon become more common due to the convergence of two large communities of astronomers in a new project .

Previously, Europe had two large collaborative networks for ground astronomy operating over the past two decades, known as OPTICON and RadioNet. These have focused on observing astronomical phenomena in distinct wavelength ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum – the former at optical wavelengths, in a part of the spectrum that includes visible light; and the latter at longer radio wavelengths.

Today, these two areas of astronomy come together in a project called OPTICON RadioNet Pilot (ORP), a consortium of astronomers from 37 institutions and 15 European countries, plus Australia and South Africa.

Presenting itself as the ‘largest astronomical network in Europe’, the initiative was set up in light of the growing need for astronomers to have a range of skills in different fields and to use complementary techniques to understand the phenomena. It also brings together around twenty telescopes and telescope networks belonging to members of the consortium, with the aim of harmonizing methods and tools between the two fields, and opening up physical and virtual access to the installations.

“There are people who are experts in both fields, but they are different communities,” said Dr Jean-Gabriel Cuby from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Aix-Marseille. , and coordinator of the ORP project. “I have been trained as an optical astronomer and other people have been trained as radio astronomers. Now we also need to train wavelength neutral astronomers. ‘

He explained that the more you can observe phenomena at different wavelengths, the more you can build an image. “Multi-wavelength astronomy is about looking across the spectrum to get as much information as possible,” he said. “The light we receive in optical and radio wavelengths comes from different physical processes; thus, the more we observe in terms of wavelength coverage, the more we learn about physical processes. ‘

Dr Cuby said the goal is to make the process of obtaining telescope time for projects requiring different installations easier and faster, which can be a lengthy process, allowing people to achieve more. easily more ambitious projects that previously required extensive management efforts. .

Telescope facilities include LOFAR, a trans-European low-frequency radio telescope network based in the Netherlands, and EVN, a radio telescope network located primarily in Europe and Asia, with additional antennas in South Africa and Puerto Rico.

Multi-messenger age

Dr Cuby explained how the need is growing to foster harmonization between fields in the current era of so-called multi-messenger astronomy. This involves observing various “messenger” particles – such as gravitational waves, neutrinos, and cosmic rays – which can reveal different information about the same sources, potentially providing unprecedented insight into the universe and its origins.

Harmonization is also essential for time domain astronomy, which explores how astronomical events vary over time. The events currently being explored are often transient, with many, such as rapid radio bursts, lasting a few milliseconds. Capturing their multiple aspects therefore requires the rapid deployment of telescopes and installations, which can again be aided by collaboration. “This time domain astronomy is going to explode in the years to come,” said Dr Cuby. “This is truly the golden age of astronomy.”

Professor Gerry Gilmore, a cosmologist at the University of Cambridge and involved in the ORP as the scientific coordinator of OPTICON, elaborated further. “This is the kind of science that we are doing now, where you discover something that is usually very variable and very often transient,” he said. “It’s over very quickly and you don’t have another chance. So you want to be able to bring the full range of potential abilities to look at that particular place in the sky right now. ‘

Previously, Professor Gilmore said, capturing a transient event relied on a tremendous amount of luck to seek in the right place at the right time, but the ORP offers a chance to “predict to be lucky” through effort. more targeted between different researchers and opens up to the “space of discovery” in astronomy.

“As soon as the technology became available to start researching shorter and shorter events, hey hop, we found out that they were all there – the universe is full of things. And it’s the most extreme things that happen the fastest.

Gravitational waves

Much of this multi-messenger and time-domain astronomy is in its infancy, but it is being opened up by technological advancements and new deployments of cutting-edge observatories around the world.

An emerging area that the ORP hopes to be stimulated by the collaboration is that of gravitational waves. First detected in 2015, they are ripples in space-time formed by some of the universe’s most cataclysmic events, such as the collision of pairs of black holes.

Last November, an international team of astronomers announced the detection of a record number of gravitational waves, adding 35 new observations over a period of about six months to bring the total to 90 so far. The findings, they believe, will help better understand the evolution of the universe and topics such as the life and death of stars.

With the related study listing more than 1,600 authors from all corners of the world and operating over 100 terrestrial and space instruments, including visible, infrared and radio telescopes, neutrino and gamma ray observatories, and ray instruments X, this reflects the extremely extensive collaboration that takes place in modern astronomy.

One of the authors, Dr Sarp Akcay, theoretical physicist at University College Dublin in Ireland who is not involved in ORP, said the ORP initiative looks promising in inspiring faster discoveries. .

“This type of large-scale collaboration will be extremely useful for gravitational wave astronomy, and even more so for so-called multi-messenger astronomy,” he said. “With more telescopes joining a global network, follow-up observations can be made more quickly in the future, which will enrich our knowledge of these events. ”

Professor Gilmore said, meanwhile, that while the ORP’s primary goal is to inspire collaboration rather than conduct specific investigations itself, a test case for the project combines finding holes blacks in optical and radio wavelengths to learn more about their nature, how common these objects are, and if the theories about them are correct.

And with the Milky Way alone believed to be home to millions of black holes, which are often formed by the death of massive stars, there’s a lot to discover. “There are a handful that have been observed under very special circumstances,” said Professor Gilmore. “So we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg, but we expect there to be a lot.”

Long-term vision

While this is just a start for the ORP, which launched in March, and the exact way it develops is not yet known, Dr Cuby and his team are hopeful that the pilot can later transform into a long-term sustainable project beyond its planned duration until the beginning of 2025. The objective is also to allow open access to those from all over the world, by broadening the field of involvement of researchers and countries previously under-represented.

Professor Gilmore said, meanwhile, that distinct communities have increasingly converged in recent years, while the OPTICON and RadioNet projects have already established strong collaborative networks in their individual fields for many years. “The community has changed steadily over the past decades,” he said. “People formed teams and used a range of facilities for a given science topic. Multi-wavelength astronomy is the reality of the way we do it these days. ‘

With the ORP project, he said: “Now it should be possible for a group of enthusiastic young scientists to just pick their leader, she writes the proposal, and ping, the team goes.”

Professor Anton Zensus, RadioNet’s scientific coordinator in the ORP project, believes the initiative is a “crucial step” in deepening the field of astronomy that will allow a much richer picture of the universe.

“Multifrequency use allows us to better understand the secrets of the universe,” he said. “ORP will allow a rapid reaction to unexpected and transient astronomical phenomena in the sky, such as gamma-ray bursts. We aim to get a complete picture that sheds light on all aspects of the phenomena. ‘

Dr Zensus added that bringing the radio and optical communities together to harmonize astronomy is a “crucial step in making it attractive to users of all astronomical communities” and helping to open up this scientific field to non-specialist users as well. “A multi-messenger approach will deepen our understanding of astronomical phenomena and at the same time create new questions and approaches,” he said.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, consider sharing it on social media.


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Provided by Horizon: the European magazine for research and innovation

Quote: Is Europe entering the golden age of astronomy? (2021, December 10) retrieved December 10, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-12-europe-golden-age-astronomy.html

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