Nav: Home

Best of both worlds: Asteroids and massive mergers

August 15, 2019

The race is on. Since the construction of technology able to detect the ripples in space and time triggered by collisions from massive objects in the universe, astronomers around the world have been searching for the bursts of light that could accompany such collisions, which are thought to be the sources of rare heavy elements.

The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory has partnered with the Catalina Sky Survey, which searches for near-Earth asteroids from atop Mount Lemmon, in an effort dubbed Searches after Gravitational Waves Using ARizona Observatories, or SAGUARO, to find optical counterparts to massive mergers.

"Catalina Sky Survey has all of this infrastructure for their asteroid survey. So we have deployed additional software to take gravitational wave alerts from LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the Virgo interferometer then notify the survey to search an area of sky most likely to contain the optical counterpart," said Michael Lundquist, postdoctoral research associate and lead author on the study published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"Essentially, instead of searching the next section of sky that we would normally, we go off and observe some other area that has a higher probability of containing an optical counterpart of a gravitational wave event," said Eric Christensen, Catalina Sky Survey director and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory senior staff scientist. "The main idea is we can run this system while still maintaining the asteroid search."

The ongoing campaign began in April, and in that month alone, the team was notified of three massive collisions. Because it is difficult to tell the precise location from which the gravitational wave originated, locating optical counterparts can be difficult.

According to Lundquist, two strategies are being employed. In the first, teams with small telescopes target galaxies that are at the right approximate distance, according to the gravitational wave signal. Catalina Sky Survey, on the other hand, utilizes a 60-inch telescope with a wide field of view to scan large swaths of sky in 30 minutes.

Three alerts, on April 9, 25 and 26, triggered the team's software to search nearly 20,000 objects. Machine learning software then trimmed down the total number of potential optical counterparts to five.

The first gravitational wave event was a merger of two black holes, Lundquist said.

"There are some people who think you can get an optical counterpart to those, but it's definitely inconclusive," he said.

The second event was a merger of two neutron stars, the incredibly dense core of a collapsed giant star. The third is thought to be a merger between a neutron star and a black hole, Lundquist said.

While no teams confirmed optical counterparts, the UA team did find several supernovae. They also used the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory to spectroscopically classify one promising target from another group. It was determined to be a supernova and not associated with the gravitational wave event.

"We also found a near-Earth object in the search field on April 25," Christensen said. "That proves right there we can do both things at the same time."

They were able to do this because Catalina Sky Survey has observations of the same swaths of sky going back many years. Many other groups don't have easy access to past photos for comparison, offering the UA team a leg up.

"We have really nice references," Lundquist said. "We subtract the new image from the old image and use that difference to look for anything new in the sky."

"The process Michael described," Christensen said, "starting with a large number of candidate detections and filtering down to whatever the true detections are, is very familiar. We do that with near-Earth objects, as well."

The team is planning on deploying a second telescope in the hunt for optical counterparts: Catalina Sky Survey's 0.7-meter Schmidt telescope. While the telescope is smaller than the 60-inch telescope, it has an even wider field of view, which allows astronomers to quickly search an even larger chunk of sky. They've also improved their machine learning software to filter out stars that regularly change in brightness.

"Catalina Sky Survey takes hundreds of thousands of images of the sky every year, from multiple telescopes. Our survey telescopes image the entire visible nighttime sky several times per month, then we are looking for one kind of narrow slice of the pie," Christensen said. "So, we've been willing to share the data with whoever wants to use it."
-end-


University of Arizona

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Uncharted
There's so much we've yet to explore–from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 2: Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day
It began with a tweet: "EVERY DAY IS IGNAZ SEMMELWEIS DAY." Carl Zimmer – tweet author, acclaimed science writer and friend of the show – tells the story of a mysterious, deadly illness that struck 19th century Vienna, and the ill-fated hero who uncovered its cure ... and gave us our best weapon (so far) against the current global pandemic. This episode was reported and produced with help from Bethel Habte and Latif Nasser. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.