Aussie telescope spots cosmic cataclysm

Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst

Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst, a huge explosion thought to be caused by the birth of a black hole, or maybe when two neutron stars collide.

Just 215 seconds after receiving an alert from a NASA satellite and with no direct human involvement, the Zadko telescope was the first in the world to turn its gaze to the light coming from a powerful explosion billions of light years away.

Located near Gingin, the Zadko Telescope is an important facility for astronomy research at The University of Western Australia (UWA), and is a joint resource for the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre (AIGRC).

GRB captured by the Zadko telescope

Image captured by the Zadko telescope. Green circles are known gamma-ray sources; red square shows the bright "unknown" source at the location of the burst.

At 7.05pm on Sunday 24 October, the Zadko received a signal from the NASA’s Swift satellite indicating that something exciting was happening in the night sky.

Without a moment to lose, the automated telescope responded to the call to action by repositioning itself so that its giant one metre mirror could capture the light coming from what scientists call a gamma ray burst.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the Universe since the Big Bang. They are brief, intense flashes of gamma radiation coming from other galaxies in the very distant Universe.

So far scientists don’t know exactly what causes them, but some suggest they signal the birth of a black hole in a massive stellar explosion. Or perhaps they’re caused by colliding neutron stars or some other exotic phenomenon.

Co-Director and Zadko Systems Manager Dr Myrtille Laas-Bourez designed the software that allows the Zadko to operate autonomously and respond to events such as this.

The Zadko telescope

The Zadko telescope

“This was a really bright gamma ray burst event and Zadko was the first ground- based telescope to catch it,” Dr Laas-Bourez said. “This is very exciting because it shows the robotic system is working well and is capable of doing some really interesting science.”

The telescope was made possible by a philanthropic donation by businessman James Zadko to the University. The instrument is a resource for research, training, and science education. It is co-located with a science and astronomy outreach facility, and with the Australian International Gravitational Observatory (AIGO).

Adapted from information issued by the University of Western Australia / NASA / David Coward.

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  1. Anne says:

    This AIGO faccility at GinGin is well worth the visit – a short drive from Perth.

  2. MarsMad says:

    I had no idea this observatory existed. Thanks.