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Multi-Messenger Astronomy

March 27, 2012

Until the last few decades, most astronomical research consisted of single astronomers studying their targets through single telescopes. There wasn’t much effort to coordinate their observations -- in large part because they’d all be seeing the same thing.

Today, though, that’s not the case. Astronomers often study targets with several telescopes on the ground and in space. Each telescope may see different wavelengths of light, so it tells a different piece of the story.

This is known as multi-messenger astronomy, and it’s becoming a lot more common. If an orbiting X-ray telescope detects the flash of an exploding star, for example, it can trigger a network of telescopes on the ground. Over the following days, more telescopes may join the hunt. That helps piece together the physics of the explosion, the chemistry of the star, and the environment around the star.

Other messengers are the ghostly particles known as neutrinos. Some are produced in the hearts of normal stars, like the Sun, but others come from stellar explosions. They reveal more about the explosion, and whether it triggered the birth of a neutron star or a black hole.

In the years ahead, one more messenger may also contribute -- the ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves. They’re weak, but stellar explosions and the mergers of black holes produce a lot of them, so they provide more information in the quest to understand the workings of the universe.

More tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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