Telescope link-up opens up the sky

A new international network of radio telescopes will for the first time track astrophysical events as they happen.

The 4 Pi Sky project will look for energetic black holes, colliding neutron stars, and astrophysical explosions all the way back to the first stars.

It involves bases in Europe, South Africa and Western Australia and is led by Southampton University professor Rob Fender.

Previous telescopes could only see a tiny fraction of the sky and missed 99 per cent of these important events but the new devices can monitor the whole sky and will find thousands of such events.

‘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’, said Fender.

‘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.’

Scientists will be able to link from telescope to telescope to follow transient phenomena as the Earth rotates, using new software that will provide a ‘detect and alert’ system for the three facilities involved.

These observations can shed light on phenomena at extremes of physics unachievable in laboratories on earth, and can act as cosmic searchlights, providing data on the ’dark ages’ before galaxies were formed.

The 4 Pi Sky programme is funded by the European Research Council and involves 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.

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,’ said Professor Fender.

‘Working with LOFAR, MeerKAT and ASKAP, and the optical and X-ray telescopes, we will build a global network to monitor the whole sky.’