4 Pi Sky will track astrophysical events as they happen
By Grant Banks
January 12, 2011
Recent technological advances are opening up more of the night sky to astronomers, allowing them to follow events using multiple telescopes as the Earth rotates. Researchers hope that a higher frequency of rare extreme astrophysical events such as colliding neutron stars will be detected using the next-generation radio telescopes sited in Europe, South Africa and Western Australia. With the so-called 4 Pi Sky project, events can be tracked across the sky using this series of terrestrial telescopes. These events can then be further analyzed using orbiting X-ray telescopes and ground based optical telescopes. One of the grandest aims of the project is to provide answers to some of the largest remaining question in physics, such as the nature of gravity.
Professor Rob Fender of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southampton is leading the global project, which is capable of tracking astrophysical events across the sky and between hemispheres. Next-generation radio telescopes located in Europe, South Africa and Western Australia make up the 4 Pi Sky project, which will look for energetic black holes, colliding neutron stars, and astrophysical explosions all the way back to the first stars. The new telescopes can monitor the whole sky and will find thousands of such events. Previous telescopes could only see a tiny fraction of the sky and missed 99 per cent of these important events, according to Professor Fender.
“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,” he said. “These high-energy bursts emit radio waves, which can be detected at vast distances. This project might even help us identify the first sources of gravitational waves, and in turn test the most fundamental theories of gravity.”
Funded by the European Research Council, the 4 Pi Sky project will use three radio telescopes – LOFAR (Low Frequency Array), which has sites across Europe, including at Chilbolton, Hampshire; MeerKAT in South Africa; and ASKAP in western Australia. Scientists will be able to link from telescope to telescope to follow transient phenomena as the Earth rotates, using new software that will be developed to provide a "detect and alert" system for all three facilities. The project will also collaborate with ground-based optical telescopes and with the orbiting MAXI X-ray telescope, which is located on the International Space Station.
“The multi-wavelength dimension will provide us with crucial information on the nature of the radio sources,” Prof. Fender said. “Working with LOFAR, MeerKAT and ASKAP, and the optical and X-ray telescopes, we will build a global network to monitor the whole sky. Every time such an advance has happened in the past, exciting new discoveries have been made – who knows what we might find this time.”