Telescope for detecting optical signals from gravitational waves launched

  • New telescope for detecting optical signatures of gravitational waves officially launched in La Palma
  • Telescope built and operated by international researchers including scientists from the University of Sheffield
  • Detection will allow astronomers to better understand the nature of neutron stars, black holes and gravity

La Palma telescope

Scientists at the University of Sheffield are part of an international research team which has built a state-of-the-art telescope for detecting optical signatures of gravitational waves.

The Gravitational-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) was inaugurated at the astronomical observing facility in La Palma, Canary Islands, this week (3 July 2017). The event was attended by the University of Sheffield’s Professor Dave Petley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation and Professor Vik Dhillon, from the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

GOTO is an autonomous, intelligent telescope, which will search for unusual activity in the sky, following alerts from gravitational wave detectors - such as the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO), which recently secured the first direct detections of gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, created when massive bodies – particularly black holes and neutron stars – orbit each other and merge at very high speeds.

These waves radiate through the Universe at the speed of light, and analysing them heralds a new era in astrophysics, giving astronomers vital clues about the bodies from which they originated – as well as long-awaited insight into the nature of gravity itself.

First predicted over a century ago by Albert Einstein, they have only been directly detected in the last two years, and astronomers’ next challenge is to associate the signals from these waves with signatures in the electromagnetic spectrum, such as optical light.

GOTO’s precise aim is to locate optical signatures associated with the gravitational waves as quickly as possible, so that astronomers can study these sources with a variety of telescopes and satellites before they fade away.
Professor Vik Dhillon, said: “This new telescope is a major breakthrough in helping us to continue our important research into detecting optical signatures of gravitational waves.”

Dr Danny Steeghs, from Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, is leading the project. He said: “After all the hard work put in by everyone, I am delighted to see the GOTO telescopes in operational mode at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory. We are all excited about the scientific opportunities it will provide.”

GOTO is operated on behalf of a consortium of institutions including the University of Warwick, Monash University, the Armagh Observatory, Leicester and Sheffield Universities, and the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT).

La Palma is one of the world’s premier astronomical observing sites, owing to the fact that it has an altitude of approximately 2400m and has very little pollution – giving researchers clear views of the sky.

Academic staff:

Professor Vik Dhillon