“This star is not on the map.” – Heinrich d’Arrest, upon discovering Neptune
Stealing. For science.
Right now astronomers across the world are waiting for it to get dark. They’ve been assigned tonight – in many cases, only tonight – as the night when they get to captain one of the planet’s world-class telescopes for their research. They’ve prepared a meticulous plan to make the most of every precious minute of darkness. Entire research projects hang on the successful execution of these long-planned observations. They can only hope there are no surprises at what, for tonight at least, is their telescope.
Their telescope is about to be stolen.
Book Thoughts: Why We Steal Telescopes
Early Thursday morning, an alert went out to astronomers around the world announcing the detection of gravitational waves from two colliding neutron stars, the tiny dense remnants of huge dead stars. When two neutron stars orbit each other they can spiral inward and merge, producing ripples in the fabric of spacetime – gravitational waves – alongside a tremendous flash of light known as a “kilonova”. Observing gravitational waves and light from an event like this is one of the holy grails of astronomy.
Unfortunately, that light is harder to find than your average Hollywood archaeological relic. The gravitational wave discovery kicked off a search for the accompanying kilonova, but it’s pretty hard to tell where in the sky these gravitational waves came from beyond “northwest-ish”. The kilonova is also fading by the hour, a slowly-disappearing needle buried in a universe-sized haystack.
Because of this, telescopes all over the world are getting hijacked tonight by new teams of astronomers charging in to frantically search for the kilonova. Some of these teams have standing permission to interrupt observatory operations, allowing them to take over if a sufficiently exciting celestial object is discovered. Others rely on phone calls to friends with telescope time and a heavy dose of goodwill, bartering, and handshake deals. Some teams agree to share data in exchange for resources, while others grapple with outright rivalries as they fight to capture the kilonova before it vanishes (and, ideally, before anyone else).
The kilonova teams aren’t quite the freewheeling, telescope-stealing pirates that they may seem. Some astronomers have spent years anticipating this event, knowing that when it comes they get the luxury of priority but not time. For these people, life grinds to a halt – sleep foregone, kids handed off to spouses, Avengers: Endgame tickets unused – as they frantically craft observing plans and pore over fresh data for any new pinprick of light that might be the elusive kilonova. The entire search is rife with possible complications. What if they don’t find any candidates for the kilonova? What if they find six? What if they find one but another team beats them to the telescope?
The universe also has a funny sense of timing when it comes to events like this. Thursday’s announcement, in a spectacular stroke of irony, came hours before the start of a “Kilonova Hunting” conference; the conference cafeteria transformed in a war room as attendees turned their attention to the world’s telescopes. What’s more, another gravitational wave detection was announced Friday morning, this one a possibly more mysterious – but even more tempting – collision of a neutron star and a black hole. People faced the strange scenario of potentially stealing telescopes from themselves to chase Friday’s new discovery over Thursday’s.
As this newsletter goes out, the kilonova still hasn’t been found. It may have started too dim, faded too fast, or still be hiding in plain sight. For now, the search continues, commandeering telescopes across the globe for just a bit longer in the hopes of capturing a rare and groundbreaking astronomical event…and being first to the prize.
What’s Next for The Last Stargazers?
Next week I’ll be taking one of my last research trips for The Last Stargazers; fittingly, I’ll be visiting one of the facilities that detects gravitational waves! The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has built two enormous detectors in the United States, one in Louisiana and one in eastern Washington State. I’ll be driving out to Hanford, WA next week to visit the detector and interview some of the engineers and astronomers behind one of the most beautifully-engineered scientific experiments in history (the detectors are 2.5 miles long and can detect fluctuations in spacetime that are 10,000 times smaller than a proton!) And hey, maybe we’ll detect another pair of colliding neutron stars while I’m there!
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