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UC Santa Barbara and Las Cumbres Observatory partner to lead the future of multi-messenger astronomy

Jul 5, 2023

Multi-messenger astronomy enabled scientists to observe merging neutron stars for the first time in 2017 (artist’s impression). Image credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

Multi-messenger astrophysics (MMA) brings together different “messengers,” or ways of studying the universe, such as photons, gravitational waves and high-energy particles. By combining these different data points, MMA can probe questions in fundamental physics through astrophysics. For example, gravitational waves from the first and, to date, only known merger of two neutron stars — a kilonova — detected by the LIGO-VIRGO-Kagra Collaboration provided astronomers insight into how the heaviest elements in the universe were synthesized.

To develop communications infrastructure to coordinate and connect multi-messenger astrophysics research across the globe, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently approved a proposal by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the Scalable Cyberinfrastructure to support Multi-Messenger Astrophysics (SCIMMA). Researchers from UC Santa Barbara and the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) in Goleta, are among the principal scientists leading this effort.

The new communications tools will allow astronomers and physicists to communicate more rapidly, robustly, and in a manner that both a human and a machine can read. For instance, physicists can send announcements of approximately where in the sky two neutron stars merged together. These can immediately be read by software, which triggers robotic telescopes — such as those of the Las Cumbres Observatory — to start observing the region, even if astronomers are asleep. Astronomers can then report their findings in a way that will instantly be accessible to other telescopes and facilities. The infrastructure is cloud-based, robust to single-point failures and has low latency. This allows for more-rapid action by astronomers to quickly observe changing phenomena before they disappear.

The full story of this partnership appears in The Current of UC Santa Barbara.