Newspaper article The Canadian Press

New Era of Astronomy Uncovers Clues about the Cosmos

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

New Era of Astronomy Uncovers Clues about the Cosmos

Article excerpt

New era of astronomy uncovers clues about the cosmos


This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Authors: Gregory Sivakoff, Associate Professor, University of Alberta and Daryl Haggard, Assistant Professor of Physics, McGill University

Astronomers have had a blockbuster year.

In addition to tracking down a cosmic source of neutrinos, they have detected the merger of two city-sized neutron stars, each more massive than the sun.

The discoveries were heralded as evidence that a "new era of multimessenger astronomy" had arrived.

But what is multimessenger astronomy?

In our daily lives, we interpret the world around us based on different signals, such as sound waves, light (a type of electromagnetic wave) and skin pressure. Each of these signals may be carried by a different "messenger." New messengers lead to new insights. So astronomers have eagerly welcomed a new set of messengers to their science.

Many messengers

For most of the history of astronomy, scientists primarily studied signals transmitted by one messenger, electromagnetic radiation. These waves, which move through space and time, are described by their wavelengths or the amount of energy found in their particles, the photons.

Radio waves have photons with the lowest amount of energy and the longest wavelengths, followed by infrared and optical light at intermediate energies and wavelengths. X-rays and gamma-rays have the shortest wavelengths and the highest energy.

But scientists study others messengers too:

Cosmic rays: charged atomic particles and nuclei travelling near the speed of light.

Neutrinos: uncharged particles that see most of the universe as transparent.

Gravitational waves: wrinkles in the very fabric of space and time.

And while some fields in astronomy have explored these messengers for years, astronomers have only recently observed events from well beyond the Milky Way with more than one messenger at the same time. In just a few months, the number of sources where astronomers can piece together the signals from different messengers doubled.

Like a walk on the beach

Multimessenger astronomy is a natural evolution of astronomy. Scientists need more data to put together a complete picture of the objects they study and match the theories they develop with their observations.

Astronomers have combined different wavelengths of photons to piece together some of the mysteries of the universe. For example, the combination of radio and optical data played a major role in determining that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy in 1951.

And astronomy continues to reveal great results about our universe using just one messenger, photons. So if multimessenger astronomy is just an evolutionary step of an incredible history of successes, does that mean it's just a new buzzword?

We don't think so.

Imagine you are walking along an ocean beach. You are enjoying the sight of an incredible sunset, hearing the rolling waves, feeling the sand beneath your feet and smelling the salty air. …

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