Tag Archives: Astrophysics

The first detection of an electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event

Full AAO Media Release, published at 01:00am Sydney time, 17 October 2017, that I coordinated.

For the first time, astronomers have observed the afterglow of an event that was also detected in gravitational waves. The object, dubbed AT2017gfo, was a pair of in-spiralling neutron stars in a galaxy 130 million light years away. The death spiral was detected in gravitational waves, and the resulting explosion was followed by over 50 observatories world wide, including the AAO and other observatories here in Australia.

On August 17, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), based in the United States, detected a new gravitational wave event, called GW170817.

GW170817 is the fifth source of gravitational waves ever recorded. The first one was discovered in September 2015, for which three founding members of the LIGO collaboration were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The GW170817 data are consistent with the merging of two neutron stars and are unlike the four previous events, which were merging black holes.

Artist’s illustration of two merging neutron stars. The narrow beams represent the gamma-ray burst while the rippling space-time grid indicates the gravitational waves that characterize the merger. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars are a possible source of the light that was seen at lower energies. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet.

The Advanced-Virgo interferometer, based in Italy, was online at the time of the discovery and contributed to the localization of the new gravitational wave burst.

Based on information from LIGO and VIRGO, numerous telescopes immediately sprang into action to determine if an electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational waves could be detected.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Fermi satellite independently reported a short burst of gamma-rays within 2 seconds of the merger event associated with GW170817, consistent with the area of sky from which LIGO and VIRGO detected their gravitational waves.

This gamma-ray detection at the same time and place triggered even greater interest from the astronomical community and resulted in more intense follow up observations in optical, infrared and radio wavelengths.

A team of scientists within the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration, which includes researchers from the Australian Astronomical Observatory and other Australian institutions, working with astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in the U.S., were among the first astronomers to observe the electromagnetic counterpart of GW170817 in optical wavelengths.

Using the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam) mounted at the 4m Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, DES identified the kilonova AT2017gfo in the nearby galaxy NGC 4993, located only 130 million light years from us, as the optical counterpart of GW170817.

Composite of detection images, including the discovery z image taken on August 18th and the g and r images taken 1 day later. Right: The same area two weeks later. Credit: Soares-Santos et al. and DES Collaboration.

“Because of its large field of view, the Dark Energy Camera was able to search almost the entire region where LIGO/VIRGO expected the gravitational wave source to be, and its exquisite sensitivity allowed us to make detailed measurements of the kilonova – the extremely energetic outburst created by the merging neutron stars,” AAO Instrument Scientist and DES Collaboration member Dr Kyler Kuehn stated.

A kilonova is similar to a supernova in some aspects, but it is different in others. It occurs when two neutron stars crash into each other. These events are thought to be the mechanism by which many of the elements heavier than iron, such as gold, are formed.

“But as impressive as it is, the Dark Energy Camera is only one of many instruments with a front row seat to this celestial spectacle. A lot of effort has gone into preparing dozens of telescopes around the world to search for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational waves”, Dr Kuehn added.

Simultaneously to the DES study, a large group of Australian astronomers obtained follow up observations of the kilonova AT2017gfo at optical, infrared and radio wavelengths, using 14 Australian telescopes as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) and other Australian programs.

Their data are consistent with the expected outburst and subsequent merger of two neutron stars, in agreement with the results derived for GW170817 by the LIGO/Virgo collaboration.

“Before this event, it was like we were sitting in an IMAX theatre with blindfolds on. The gravitational wave detectors let us ‘hear’ the movies of black hole collisions, but we couldn’t see anything. This event lifted the blindfolds and, wow, what an amazing show!!”, A/Professor Jeff Cooke, astronomer at Swinburne University who led many of the observations said.

The Australia team also conducted observations at the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), that is managed by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO). Additional archive data from the 6dF survey obtained at the AAO’s 1.2m UK Schmidt Telescope were also used.

“The observations undertaken at the AAT place important constraints on the nature of the environment in which the kilonova occurred”, AAO astronomer Dr Chris Lidman said.

The follow up observations were not scheduled, but the excitement that this event generated in the astronomical community was so large that regular programs were placed on hold.

“Many astronomers dropped any other planned observation and used all the available resources to study this rare event”, said PhD candidate Igor Andreoni (Swinburne University and Australian Astronomical Observatory), first author of the scientific paper that will be published in the science journal “Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia” (PASA).

The study also reveals that the host galaxy has not experienced significant star-formation during the last billion years. However, there is some evidence that indicates that NGC 4993 experienced a collision with a smaller galaxy not long time ago.

The position of the kilonova AT2017gfo, found in the external parts of NGC 4993, may suggest that the binary neutron star could have been part of the smaller galaxy.

Australian astronomers were thrilled to contribute to both the detection and the ongoing observations of the kilonova AT2017gfo, the electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational wave event GW170817.

“We have been waiting and preparing for an event like this, but didn’t think it would happen so soon and in a galaxy that is so near to us. Once we were alerted of the gravitational wave detection, we immediately contacted a dozen telescopes and joined the worldwide effort to study this historic event. It didn’t let us down!”, A/Professor Jeff Cooke said.

“It was crucial to have telescopes placed in every continent, including Australia, to keep this rare event continuously monitored”, PhD candidate Igor Andreoni said.

“To me, this gravitational + electromagnetic wave combined detection is even more important than the initial detection that resulted in the Nobel Prize. This has changed the way the entire astronomical community operates”, AAO Instrument Scientist Dr Kyler Kuehn stated.

The first identification of the electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave event is a milestone in the history of modern Astronomy, and opens a new era of multi-messenger astronomy.

More information:

AAO Media Release

AAO Media Release in Spanish / Nota de prensa del AAO en español

LIGO Media Release

DES Media Release

OzGrav Media Release

ESO Media Release

NASA Media Release

Article in The Conversation: “After the alert: radio ‘eyes’ hunt the source of the gravitational waves”, by Tara Murphy and David Kaplan

Article in The Conversation: “At last, we’ve found gravitational waves from a collapsing pair of neutron stars”, by David Blair

Multimedia, videos and animations:

Although there are many videos around there talking about this huge announcement, I particularly like this one by Derek Muller (Veritasium):

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“The Story of Light: Surveying the Cosmos”, in Vivid Sydney Ideas 2017

Article originally written by Ángel R. López-Sánchez for the “AAO Observer” 132, August 2017.

Following the success of our sold-out Event “The Story of Light – The Astronomer’s Perspective” for ViVID Sydney Ideas 2015, and “The Story of Light – Deciphering the data encoded on the cosmic light” (see photos and the video of this event), the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) continued its collaboration with ViVID Sydney 2017 organizing “The Story of Light – Surveying the Cosmos”.

This successful science communication event was held at the Powerhouse Museum (Sydney) on Sunday 4th June 2017. Having an audience of 300 people, it was sold out more than two weeks before the event.

“The Story of Light – Surveying the Cosmos” was connected to the 2017 Southern Cross Astrophysics Conference: Surveying the Cosmos, the Science from massively multiplexed surveys, that was held in Luna Park, Sydney, between 5th and 9th June 2017.

Poster for the AAO’s “The Story of Light – Surveying the Cosmos” Science Communication event for Vivid Sydney Ideas 2017. Credit: Angel R. Lopez-Sanchez.

In this event, five professional astrophysicists discussed how astronomers map the Cosmos using the big data collected with optical and radio telescopes by large astronomical surveys.

How do astronomers explore the Universe? Astrophysicists use extremely sensitive telescopes and instruments to collect the light emitted by stars, gas and galaxies. The analysis of this data provides the information needed to unlock the mysteries of the Cosmos.

However, this is not an easy task. Over the last two decades large international collaborations have been formed with the aim to map the skies, catalogue celestial objects, extract their properties and perform statistical analyses. These large astronomical surveys are now providing major advances in our understanding of the Cosmos at all scales, from searching for planets around other stars to detecting gravitational waves.

Australia is at the forefront of these collaborations thanks to the unique instruments at the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) and the development of radio-interferometers as the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP).

Panel members and MC of AAO’s “The Story of Light – Surveying the Cosmos” Science Communication event for Vivid Sydney Ideas 2017. From left to right: Katie Mack, Alan Duffy, Simon O’Toole, Tara Murphy and Ángel López-Sánchez. Credit: Duncan Wright (AAO/UNSW).

The panel members were Dr. Simon O’Toole (Australian Astronomical Observatory), who talked about surveying stars and exoplanets, Dr. Ángel R. López-Sánchez (Australian Astronomical Observatory / Macquarie University), who discussed how we surveying the galaxies, A/Prof. Tara Murphy (University of Sydney / CAASTRO), who invited us to surveying the invisible Universe, and Dr. Katie Mack (University of Melbourne), who talked about surveying the deep Universe. The event was hosted by famous astrophysicist and science communicator A/Prof. Alan R. Duffy (Swinburne University).

After short (15 minutes) talks, the panel answered questions about the Universe and challenging Physics questions as the nature of the dark matter and the dark energy. They also received some more philosophical questions that engaged the audience.

More information:

Light and Astrophysics: My post for the IYL15 blog

DP ENGLISH: This story belongs to the series “Double Post” which indicates posts that have been written both in English in The Lined Wolf and in Spanish in El Lobo Rayado.

DP ESPAÑOL: Esta historia entra en la categoría “Doble Post” donde indico artículos que han sido escritos tanto en español en El Lobo Rayado como en inglés en The Lined Wolf.

Post originally published on 17th March 2015 in the International Year of Astronomy 2015 (IYL15) blog with the title Light and Astrophysics. The Spanish version of this article was published in Naukas.com.

Unlike the rest of sciences, Astrophysics is not based on carefully experiments designed in a laboratory but in the direct observation of the Universe. Astrophysicists get their data via the analysis of the light we receive from the Cosmos. For achieving this we use extremely sensitive instruments that collect the light emitted by planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies. Certainly, there are some alternative ways to study the Universe besides using the light, as analyzing meteorites or moon rocks, detecting energetic particles such as cosmic rays and neutrinos, or perhaps even using gravitational waves if they actually exist. But the main tool astrophysicists have today to investigate the Cosmos is the study of the radiation we receive from the outer space. Light is the key piece of the Astrophysics we make today.

As the aim is to observe the very faint light coming from objects located even billions of light years away, astronomical observatories are built in relatively isolated places, which are typically located high over the sea level. To observe the Universe, we astrophysicists need dark skies that are not affected by the nasty light pollution created by our society. The inadequate use of the artificial light emitted by streetlight of the cities induces an increasing of the brightness of the night sky. This happens as a consequence of the reflection and diffusion of the artificial light in the gases and particles of dust of the atmosphere. Besides the huge economic waste that it means, light pollution also has a very negative impact on the ecosystem, increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and drastically diminishes the visibility of the celestial bodies. Unfortunately the light pollution is the reason that a large part of the mankind cannot enjoy a dark starry sky. How is the firmament when we observe it from a dark place? This time-lapse video shows as an example the sky over Siding Spring Observatory (Australia), where the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), managed by the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) and where I work, is located. The darkness of the sky in this observatory allows us to clearly see with our own eyes the Milky Way (the diffuse band of stars that crosses the sky) and many other celestial bodies such as the Magellanic Clouds, the Orion and Carina nebulae, or the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.


Movie: Time-lapse video “The Sky over the Siding Spring Observatory”. More information about this video in this post in the blog. Credit: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ).

On the other hand, after traveling during hundreds, millions, or billions of years throughout the deep space, the information codified in the light that reaches us is disrupted by the atmosphere of the Earth in the last millionth of a second of its trip. Hence professional telescopes are built on the top of the mountains, where the atmosphere is more stable than a sea level. Even though, many times this is not enough: our atmosphere distorts the light coming from space and prevents the identification of objects located very close in the sky. New techniques have been developed for compensating the effect of the atmosphere in the quality of the light we receive from the Cosmos. In particular, the adaptive optics technique induces in real time slight modifications to the shape of the primary mirror of the telescope, and therefore they counteract the distortion created by the atmosphere. In any case, astrophysicists need to direct the light received by the telescope to a detector, which transforms light energy into electric energy. This has been the purpose of the CCD (Charge-Couple Device) chips, firstly used by astronomers, and later popularized in smartphones and digital cameras. Very sophisticated optical systems are built to direct the light from the telescope to the detectors. Some of the systems created to manipulate our collection and processing of light are based on optical fibres. This new technology has created the branch of Astrophotonic. Indeed, the AAO, together with the University of Sydney and Macquarie University (Australia), are pioneers in the field of Astrophotonic. The next video shows how the light from the Cosmos is studied at the AAT. First it is collected using the primary mirror of the telescope, which has a diameter of 4 meters, and then it is sent using optical fibres to a dark room where the AAOmega spectrograph is located. This spectrograph, which is a series of special optics, separates the light into its rainbow spectrum, in a similar way a prism separates white light into a rainbow. The separated light is later focussed onto the CCD detector.


Movie: Rainbow Fingerprints, showing how the light of distant galaxies in collected by the Anglo-Australian Telescope and directed to the AAOmega spectrograph using optical fibres. More information: at the AAO webpages. Credit: Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), Movie produced by Amanda Bauer (AAO).

Specifically, this video shows how astrophysicists analyse the light coming from distant galaxies to understand their nature and properties. In particular, the video reveals the final science quality spectra for two different types of galaxies, one spiral (top panel) and one elliptical (bottom panel), using actual data obtained with the AAT and the AAOmega spectrograph. The information codified in the rainbow fingerprint identifies each galaxy unambiguously: distance, star formation history, chemical composition, age, physical properties as the temperature or the density of the diffuse gas, and many more. All this information has been captured within a single ray of light that has travelled hundred of millions of years to reach us. Similarly, the properties of stars (luminosity, mass, temperature, chemical composition, kinematics, …), nebulae, and any other celestial body (planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, …) are analyzed through its light. And studying tiny changes in the amount of light we receive from nearby stars we are now finding thousands of exoplanets in the Milky Way.

The “rainbow fingerprints” video shown before includes only the observations of two galaxies, but actually the AAT is able to observe around 350 objects at the same time. This is achieved using the 2dF robot, which can configure 400 optical fibres within a circular field of view with a diameter of 4 full moons. The majority of the optical fibres are allocated to observe galaxies (or stars), but some few optical fibres are used to get an accurate guiding of the telescope or to obtain important calibration data. With this technology the AAT is a survey machine, and indeed it is a pioneer of galaxy surveys. Around 1/3 of all the galaxy distances known today have been obtained using the AAT. The most recent galaxy survey completed at the AAT is the “Galaxy And Mass Assembly” (GAMA) survey, that has collected the light of more than 300 thousand galaxies located in some particular areas of the sky. The next movie shows the 3D distribution of galaxies in one of the sky areas observed by GAMA. This simulated fly through shows the real positions and images of the galaxies that have been mapped by GAMA. Distances are to scale, but the galaxy images have been enlarged for a viewing pleasure.


Movie: “Fly through of the GAMA Galaxy Catalogue”, showing a detailed map of the Universe where galaxies are in 3D. More information in the Vimeo webpage of the video. Crédito: Made by Will Parr, Dr. Mark Swinbank and Dr. Peder Norberg (Durham University) using data from the SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) and the GAMA (Galaxy And Mass Assembly) surveys.

However, to really understand what happens in the Universe, astrophysicists use not only the light that our eyes can see (the optical range) but all the other “lights” that make up the electromagnetic spectrum, from the very energetic gamma rays to the radio waves. The light codified in the radio waves is studied using radiotelescopes, many of them located in the surface of the Earth. The study of the light in radio frequencies allows us to detect the diffuse, cold gas existing in and around galaxies, the coldest regions of the interstellar medium and where the stars are formed, and energetic phenomena associated to galaxy nuclei hosting an active super-massive black hole in its centre. Many technological achievements, including the invention of the Wi-Fi, come from Radioastronomy. The study of the infrared, ultraviolet, X ray and gamma ray lights must be done using space telescopes, as the atmosphere of the Earth completely blocks these kinds of radiation. As an example, the next image shows how the nearby spiral galaxy M 101 is seen when we use all the lights of the electromagnetic spectrum. Light in X rays traces the most violent phenomena in the galaxy, which are regions associated to supernova remnants and black holes. The ultraviolet (UV) light marks where the youngest stars (those born less than 100 million years ago) are located. Optical (R band) and near-infrared (H band) lights indicate where the sun-like and the old stars are found. The emission coming from ionized hydrogen (H-alpha) reveals the star-forming regions, that is, the nebulae, in M 101. Mid-infrared (MIR) light comes from the thermal emission of the dust, which has been heated up by the young stars. Finally, the image in radio light (neutral atomic hydrogen, HI, at 21 cm) maps the diffuse, cold, gas in the galaxy.

Imagen: Mosaic showing six different views of the galaxy M 101, each one using a different wavelength. Images credit: X ray data (Chandra): NASA/CXC/JHU/K.Kuntz et al,; UV data(GALEX): Gil de Paz et al. 2007, ApJS, 173, 185; R and Hα data (KPNO): Hoopes et al. 2001, ApJ, 559, 878; Near-Infrared data (2MASS): Jarrett et al. 2003, AJ, 125, 525, 8 microns data (Spitzer): Dale et al. 2009, ApJ, 703, 517; 21cm HI data (VLA): Walter et al. 2008, AJ, 136, 2563, ”The H I Nearby Galaxy Survey”. Credit of the composition: Ángel R. López-Sánchez (AAO/MQ).

In any case, today Astrophysics does not only use observations of the light we collect from the Cosmos, but also includes a prominent theoretical framework. “Experiments” in Astrophysics are somewhat performed using computer simulations, where the laws of Physics, together with some initial conditions, are taken into account. When the computer runs, the simulated system evolves and from there general or particular trends are obtained. These predictions must be later compared with the real data obtained using telescopes. Just to name some few cases, stellar interiors, supernova explosions, and galaxy evolution are modeled through careful and sometimes expensive computer simulations. As an example, the next movie shows a cosmological simulation that follows the development of a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way from shortly after the Big Bang to the present time. This computer simulation, that required about 1 million CPU hours to be completed, assumes that the Universe is dominated by dark energy and dark matter. The simulation distinguishes old stars (red colour), young stars (blue colour) and the diffuse gas available to form new stars (pale blue), which is the gas we observe using radiotelescopes. This kind of cosmological simulations are later compared with observations obtained using professional telescopes to progress in our understanding of the Cosmos.

Movie: Computer simulation showing the evolution of a spiral galaxy over about 13.5 billion years, from shortly after the Big Bang to the present time. Colors indicate old stars (red), young stars (white and bright blue) and the distribution of gas density (pale blue); the view is 300,000 light-years across. The simulation ran on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and required about 1 million CPU hours. It assumes a universe dominated by dark energy and dark matter. More information about this animation in this NASA website. Credit: F. Governato and T. Quinn (Univ. of Washington), A. Brooks (Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison), and J. Wadsley (McMaster Univ.).

In summary, thanks to the analysis of the light we know where stars, galaxies, and all the other celestial bodies are, what are they made of, how do the move, and more. Actually, much of the research that we astrophysicists do today combines observing and analyzing light coming from very different spectral ranges, X rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio waves. In many cases, we are using techniques that have been known for only few decades and that are still waiting to be fully exploited. The detailed study of the light coming from the Cosmos will provide new important astronomical discoveries in the nearby future and, at the same time, will impulse new technologies; many of them will be applied in medicine and communications. The light techniques we are developing for Astrophysics will have a direct application to our everyday life and will improve the welfare state of our society, besides deepens the understanding of the vast Universe we all live in.