Gravitational wave explorer seeks light of merging dead stars

GOTO workshop

L to R: Dr Danny Steeghs, Dr Eric Thrane, Dr Duncan Galloway, Dr Yuri Levin and Professor Tom Marsh

Searching the universe for optical flashes, the electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational waves, is the challenge for a team of researchers leading the Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) project.

The most likely type of event that would lead to detectable gravitational wave signals are merging pairs of neutron stars, which are also thought to create short gamma-ray bursts and optical flashes.

Detection of the optical flashes from these pairs of dead stars is the focus of the Monash Warwick Alliance supported GOTO project. The project is lead by researchers from Monash University and the University of Warwick with additional contributions from Armagh Observatory, the University of Sheffield and the University of Leicester.

Progress on the GOTO project, a proposed multi-site network of telescopes to carry out follow-up observations of gravitational wave triggers, was presented at a workshop at Monash University in April.

Team leaders Dr Duncan Galloway from Monash University's School of Physics and Astronomy and the Monash Centre for Astrophysics and Dr Danny Steeghs from University of Warwick's Astronomy and Astrophysics Group outlined the project’s motivation, technical design, observing plan and software requirements.

The workshop also included presentations from members of the Australian astronomical community working on related projects.

The GOTO telescope will respond to gravitational wave events and will have the capability to search vast areas of the sky for transient optical sources.

The team concedes this is a challenging prospect, somewhat like seeking a needle in a haystack, but if the optical sources are detected, they will carry the promise of new knowledge of the early universe.

“Currently what we know about the universe comes from light. The detection of gravitational waves will open up an entirely new source of information that will help us understand our universe in new ways,” Dr Galloway said. 

A prototype of the telescope will be assembled and deployed in late 2015, with full-scale operation planned for late 2016. The first telescope will be located on La Palma, Canary Islands, an ideal site for observations thanks to its elevation and climate.

“The primary goal of the prototype is to demonstrate the technical feasibility of the design concept and its key hardware elements, but also to participate in the first searches when the gravitational wave detector arrays switch on later this year,” Dr Steeghs said.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space that theoretically transport energy as gravitational radiation. Albert Einstein predicted their existence as part of his theory of general relativity.

Their imminent detection by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a worldwide network of more than 800 astronomers, and Virgo, a gravitational wave antenna, carries the potential for greater knowledge about gravitational wave sources and their electromagnetic counterparts.

Formed in early 2012, the Monash Warwick Alliance represents an innovation in higher education and research and aims to accelerate the exchange of people, ideas and information between Monash University and the University of Warwick.