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How Scientists are learning to see without light

A summary of the incredible new ways in which scientists are learning to map the universe without light!

By RavenSplat Thu 27 Jul, 2023 3:08 PM
Recently Scientist from across the globe have looking for ways to map the universe in new ways. In the past the only way Humans have been able to monitor the stars has been with distant light and monitoring how it has been changed and which wavelengths are present. However very recently Scientist have been looking at using light in new ways to observe other changes. One way is using distant pulsars to find gravitational waves and the other is monitoring light emitted from Neutrino emissions

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time (the fabric of the universe) travelling at the speed of light which are caused by events concerning massive objects such as Black holes colliding, black holes orbiting each other, and massive stars going supernova. Gravitational waves cause space-time to change its shape and length slightly when they pass through it. They were first predicted by Einstein's general relativity in 1915 but not measured directly until 2015.

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Size:  170.2 KBEffelsberg Observatory - Credit: Tacken, MPIfR
Pulsars are incredibly fast spinning neutron stars (very old stars that form out of supernova cores) that emit radio waves from their poles up to 700 times a second. They are also incredibly dense, having a mass up to 1.4 times the mass of Sun with a radius of 13km which half the height of Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest mountain in the solar system. Because the radio waves are emitted in a very frequent pattern they are sometimes known as cosmic light houses and it is theorised they could be used for finding your place in the galaxy if lost as you could compare data gathered with a compiled list of known pulsars.

Neutrinos are subatomic neutral particles that travel at over 99.999% the speed of light. Due to them having mass they can not reach the speed of light but they get as close as we have seen any particle reach. They rarely interact with particles due to atoms being mainly empty space but when they do they occasionally change the individual atom which causes photons to be emitted. Neutrinos are so common in space that there are 1 Trillion of them travelling through your body a second. Of course due to speed Neutrinos travel at a trillion are not in your body at a specific moment.

Over the past 25 years scientist at the European Pulsar Timing Array (EPTA) along with colleagues in India and Japan have been monitoring 25 pulsars for slight changes in their timing to know when a gravitational wave has slightly changed the distance between the Earth and that pulsar. Scientist in North America, Australia and China have managed to also do the same. Because these pulsars stretch across the Milky Way Galaxy it has allowed gravitation waves with frequencies in the nanohertz range (10^-9Hz).
These findings which were recently published prove that this is possible, and it could lead to a much better understanding of the number of black holes in our galaxy and their nature.

Humanity has already been able to measure gravitational waves using the facilities at the two current Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories in the US states of Florida and Washington. These have allowed scientist to measure gravitational waves by the slight difference in the reflected lasers and comparing the data from the two different sites, which is soon to have a third site with in India that recently was approved by the local government. However these sites can only measure gravitational waves in from 1Hz up to 20,000Hz.

There is a mission known as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) which is aimed to launch in 2024 that would set up a triangle of laser through 3 satellites that would be able to measure gravitational waves with frequencies in the millihertz range (10^ -3) which no equipment can currently cover and would give insight into when dense objects fall into black holes as well more data on binary black hole systems.
Different phenomena create gravitational waves of different frequencies and so scientist must always be looking into ways to reduce the gap in their detection abilities to discover more about these phenomena.

At the same time as this was announced another breakthrough in Interstellar observations was made. This time instead of spread across the globe in loads of Radio observatories spread across the globe it's a very clear bit of ice in the Antarctic. Deep in the Antarctic is a special type of ice that is exceptionally clear. Clearer than anything we currently have available at this size, with the Ice Cube being over a cubic kilometre and 1500m under the top ice in Antarctica. Here 86 detectors have been drilled down and put into the ice which allows the detection of photons from Neutrino emissions.

The aim of the recent mission has been to monitor extra-solar Neutrinos. This is difficult due to the number of Neutrinos the sun produces as well as interaction with the Earth's atmosphere that you need to filter out. In very different way to normal extra-galactic neutrinos overwhelm galactic neutrinos as well. However new techniques and technologies have allowed Scientists to create a neutrino map of the galaxy. Although currently very low in resolution it is hoped resolution could improve and allow for a new way to explore our galaxy.

It is hoped that with these two methods of gravitational wave detection and the Neutrino detectors working together, more mysteries of the universe can be uncovered and further evidence for or against Einstein’s theories of relativity as well as help to find the number of Binary Black holes and supernova in our Galaxy and maybe beyond.

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Infographic showing how pulsars can be used as cosmic clocks

What do you think of the latest innovation in mapping the universe? Let us know in the comments below!

IMAGES SOURCED FROM - - - Infographic Credit: Danielle Futselaar / MPIfR - Tacken / MPIfR
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