New array starts scanning for exceedingly rare gravitational-wave sources

Only one gravitational-wave source has ever been observed in visible light.
Chris Young
The BlackGEM array.
The BlackGEM array.

Zdeněk Bardon / ESO 

An ambitious new gravitational wave observation mission has just started operations.

The BlackGEM array, made up of three new telescopes located at the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) La Silla Observatory in Chile, has now started scanning the skies, a press statement reveals.

The array will observe the southern sky in a bid to hunt down massive, incredibly distant cosmic events via the tsunami of gravitational waves they emit throughout the cosmos. These include cataclysmic mergers of neutron stars and black holes.

The problem with state-of-the-art gravitational wave observatories

Events, including the collision of black holes and neutron stars, create gravitational waves, also known as ripples in space-time.

Observatories, including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo Interferometer, were designed to detect these ripples, which point us in the direction of massic cosmic events that play a key role in shaping the universe.

One problem with LIGO and Virgo is that they are not able to pinpoint the origin of the gravitational waves they detect with great accuracy. They also can't observe the light, often emitted in a fleeting burst, of the event that sent these ripples crashing through the cosmos.

To date, only one gravitational-wave source has ever been detected in visible light.

That's where the BlackGEM array comes in. The network was designed to quickly scan large swathes of the sky to hunt down gravitational-wave sources using visible light. This means it will be able to work in combination with LIGO and Virgo to shed new light on these cosmic events.

"With BlackGEM we aim to scale up the study of cosmic events with both gravitational waves and visible light," Paul Groot, the principal investigator for BlackGem, from Radboud University in the Netherlands, explained in the statement. "The combination of the two tells us much more about these events than just one or the other."

Scanning the night sky for faint traces of cataclysmic explosions

When BlackGEM identifies gravitational-wave sources, the astronomical community will perform follow-up observations using larger telescopes, such as ESO's Very Large Telescope.

Each of BlackGEM's telescopes is roughly 65 centimeters in diameter and is capable of observing different regions of the sky at the same time. ESO has noted that it eventually aims to expand the BlackGEM array to have 15 telescopes scanning the cosmos.

By using visible light, astronomers will be able to learn more about the processes that occur during these massive mergers, such as the formation of heavy elements, including gold and platinum. They will also be able to pinpoint the exact location of gravitational-wave sources and possibly even confirm previous observations.

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