From Gemini: “Could Gravitational Wave Events Flash in Visible Light?”

NOAO

Gemini Observatory
Gemini Observatory

August 16, 2016

Gemini explores the possibility of short-lived optical emission (visible light) from the violent events that produce gravitational waves.

Even before the announcement of the first gravitational wave detection by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in February of this year, theorists wondered if the extreme energy required to produce strong gravitational waves might also produce a detectable optical flash.

Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib
Gravitational waves. Credit: MPI for Gravitational Physics/W.Benger-Zib

Currently the most widely accepted explanation for gravitational wave events is the collision of black holes.

SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project
SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

The impact would send gravitational waves rippling through space at the speed of light. Thanks to LIGO the existence of gravitational waves is now confirmed, but unknown is the extent to which they might be accompanied by the emission of optical light or radiation at higher energies such as x-ray or gamma-rays.

LSC LIGO Scientific Collaboration
Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation
Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation
Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA
Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA

A recent study headed by Stephen Smartt at Queen’s University in Belfast and Ken Chambers from University of Hawai‘i could help answer this question. “We were looking for the perverbial needle in the haystack,” says Chambers. “The area of sky was about 290 square degrees, and while we found several potential sources, in the end none could be associated with the LIGO discovery source.” Smartt adds that the coordination of observations between wide-field telescopes like Pan-STARRS1 and deep spectroscopic follow-ups with Gemini were critical to the research which ultimately proved the concept for future gravitational wave events.

Pannstars telescope, U Hawaii, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
Pannstars telescope, U Hawaii, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

“With this effort we’ve demonstrated that we can tile out the big sky area that LIGO thinks the source originated, find anything that is transient or variable to quite deep limits and then trigger a range of other powerful facilities like Gemini,” said Smartt. “It’s a big team project and I’m very excited about it’s potential. We have the tools to discover the sources in the next couple of years.”

The paper, titled: A Search for an Optical Counterpart to the Gravitational Wave Event GW151226 has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is also on astro-ph.

The Gemini Observatory followup observations – to provide spectroscopic classifications of transient sources – were made with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawai‘i. One interesting source is a supernova that occurred at roughly the same time as (within a few days of) the gravitational wave source, but it is too distant to be the counterpart. Data were also provided by Pan-STARRS1, the University of Hawai‘i’s 2.2-meter telescope, the ATLAS survey telescope, the Public ESO Spectroscopic Survey of Transient Objects (PESSTO), and an additional observation using the Hubble Space Telescope.

U Hawaii 2.2 meter telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
U Hawaii 2.2 meter telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

See the full article here .

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Gemini North
Gemini North, Hawai’i

Gemini South
Gemini South, Chile
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Gemini’s mission is to advance our knowledge of the Universe by providing the international Gemini Community with forefront access to the entire sky.

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South); together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in six partner countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country’s contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva, and the Brazilian Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.