A state-of-the-art telescope for detecting optical signatures of gravitational waves – built and operated by an international research collaboration, led by the University of Warwick, and including Armagh Observatory & Planetarium – has been officially launched.
The Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) was inaugurated at the University of Warwick’s astronomical observing facility in La Palma, Canary Islands, on July 3.
GOTO is an autonomous, intelligent telescope, which will search for unusual activity in the sky, following alerts from gravitational wave detectors – such as the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO), which recently secured the first direct detections of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, created when massive bodies – particularly black holes and neutron stars – orbit each other and merge at very high speeds.
These waves radiate through the Universe at the speed of light, and analysing them heralds a new era in astrophysics, giving astronomers vital clues about the bodies from which they originated – as well as long-awaited insight into the nature of gravity itself.
First predicted over a century ago by Albert Einstein, they have only been directly detected in the last two years, and astronomers’ next challenge is to associate the signals from these waves with signatures in the electromagnetic spectrum, such as optical light.
This is GOTO’s aim: to locate optical signatures associated with the gravitational waves as quickly as possible, so that astronomers can study these sources with a variety of telescopes and satellites before they fade away.
Dr Gavin Ramsay, from Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, is leading Armagh’s GOTO work.
He said: “GOTO will be searching the sky for optical light from gravitational wave events such as the merging black holes already discovered by LIGO. It will also detect outbursts from accreting binaries, stellar flares and also detect comets and asteroids. It will significantly enhance the research capability of the Observatory.”
Prof Michael Burton, the Director of Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, says: “This is a very exciting development for Armagh which will help to keep the Observatory at the front line of astronomical research, and enhance Northern Ireland’s international reputation.”
GOTO is operated on behalf of a consortium of institutions including the University of Warwick, Monash University, Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, Leicester and Sheffield Universities, and the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT). La Palma is one of the world’s premier astronomical observing sites, owing to its altitude and has very little pollution – giving researchers clear views of the sky.