New scheme to track astronomical events in real time

Posted by Kate Taylor

A new global project will, for the first time, be able to track astrophysical events across the sky as they happen.

Using radio telescopes in Europe, South Africa and Western Australia, the 4 Pi Sky project will look for energetic black holes, colliding neutron stars and astrophysical explosions.

"The universe is a violent and dynamic environment in which explosions of massive stars can outshine an entire galaxy and black holes swallow whole stars," says Professor Rob Fender of Southampton University.

“These high-energy bursts emit radio waves, which can be detected at vast distances. However, previous telescopes could only see a tiny fraction of the sky and missed 99 per cent of these important events. The new telescopes can monitor the whole sky and will find thousands of such events."

Funded by the European Research Council, the 4 Pi Sky programme will use three radio telescopes – LOFAR, which has sites across Europe; MeerKAT in South Africa; and ASKAP in western Australia.

For the first time, scientists will be able to link from telescope to telescope to follow phenomena as the Earth rotates, using new software under development to provide a 'detect and alert' system for all three facilities.

The project will also collaborate with ground-based optical telescopes and with the MAXI X-ray telescope on the International Space Station.

“The multi-wavelength dimension will provide us with crucial information on the nature of the radio sources,” says Professor Fender. "This project might even help us identify the first sources of gravitational waves, and in turn test the most fundamental theories of gravity. Every time such an advance has happened in the past, exciting new discoveries have been made – who knows what we might find this time."