July 18, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

How the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will study space and time

When the Vera C. Rubin Observatory comes online, perhaps at full capacity in 2025, this powerful and unique survey telescope, at high altitude in Chile, will study the skies in a new and unprecedented way.

Originally called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the observatory was renamed in honor of the great Vera Rubin, who died in 2016 and was a pioneering researcher into the composition of the universe. Astronomers and project managers hope that opening the observatory at full speed for scientific operations will kick off what they call the Legacy Study of Space and Time, and usher in new ways of understanding the cosmos both near and far.

The observatory will explore elements of the solar system, study transient events, map the Milky Way in detail, and examine optical counterparts to gravitational wave events. “Having a study that accesses such a huge volume of the universe in four dimensions offers a unique opportunity to discover things we don't know yet,” said Federica Bianco, associate project scientist at the Rubin Observatory and astrophysicist at the University of Delaware.

Track changes in the sky with the Rubin Observatory

Igor Andreoni, an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland and NASA-Goddard, says Rubin's large aperture, wide field of view and sensitivity to seeing the depths of space will be a game-changer for astronomy.

Because of its sensitivity, the Rubin Observatory can detect extremely faint sources, such as the afterglow of a kilonova. Kilonovas are bright flashes of light that fade away after a few days, and astronomers believe they occur when two neutron stars collide with each other and are responsible for the formation of heavy elements such as gold, silver and platinum.

To detect such cosmic shocks, Rubin will allow researchers to follow up on gravitational wave detections. Researchers would like to capture the electromagnetic counterparts of these waves, and Rubin can quickly point them in the direction of a signal. This type of monitoring occurred when the LIGO instruments observed gravitational waves and then NASA's Fermi satellite detected a weak pulse of gamma rays from the merger of neutron stars in 2017. The event, called GW170817, was later followed by multiple observatories around the world that detected optical and infrared light of a kilonova.

“If there are neutron stars that are merging, or black holes and neutron stars that are merging, and LIGO detects a gravitational wave, with Rubin it will be much easier to follow up and see if there is a flash of light that follows along with it.” ” says Mario Juric, leader of the Rubin Observatory's solar system discovery team and director of the DiRAC Institute at the University of Washington. “That way we can understand the physics of black holes.”

Plan how scientists' time will be allocated

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory and the LSST Chamber.
Researchers examine the LSST camera that will be installed at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (right) in Chile. Credit: G. Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The possibilities have an entire astronomical community excited about the study of the southern sky that the observatory will carry out for a decade. However, observing the entire southern sky will require a lot of time and serious planning. Much thought also needs to be given to how the scientific community will use the observatory's time.

To detect kilonovae and follow signals from LIGO or other gravitational wave detectors, the Rubin Observatory will need to occasionally interrupt the main survey. In March 2024, researchers involved with Rubin met at Rubin ToO 2024, a meeting that stands for “objective of opportunity.” Experts discussed how they could follow up on signals while minimally disrupting other projects.

“So what we're asking the project to do is to set aside a portion of LSST's time to do these kinds of explorations that most likely no other instrument will do,” says Raffaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley who specializes in stellar explosions.

About 10 percent of Rubin's LSST observation time will be dedicated to these types of studies and programs. Another includes a set of so-called Deep Drill Fields, in which Rubin will observe five regions of the sky multiple times. The most recent Deep Drilling Field selected is in coordination with the Euclid Space Telescope and it is called Euclid Deep Field South.

Limitations and community effort

While Rubin is a powerful telescope, it has limitations. The pattern Rubin uses to observe the sky is not compatible with seeing high-speed transients called fast blue optical transients. Rubin must partner with other observatories to conduct such studies, including the Sur La Silla Schmidt Survey. Margutti says that combining these surveys will fill in the gaps that the LSST will miss. Additionally, Rubin and his collaborators are establishing programs to engage the public in citizen science projects.

“One of the limiting factors of the science we can get from Rubin is the ability to analyze the data or find interesting things in it,” Juric says. “We have all these software engineers who are amateur astronomers who know how to find these interesting anomalies. “They know how to build these types of algorithms.”

Not only will Rubin's data set be large, but the resulting images will be so large that not even The Sphere in Las Vegas could show them, Bianco says. Once captured, anyone will be able to zoom in on any part of the southern hemisphere sky and take a look. The first image the public will see of Rubin is confidential. Researchers have some ideas and there is a long list. “I promise it will be amazing,” says Clare Higgs, astronomical outreach specialist at Rubin.

Stay tuned for exciting times ahead!

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