Gravitational wave detectors record collisions between the universe’s strangest objects, including neutron stars, black holes and white dwarfs. However, it actually sees these events, and astronomers need to observe them at electromagnetic frequencies. A new citizen science project invites the public to find optical counterparts to events registered by gravitational wave detectors.
The Gravitational-Wave Optical Transient Observatory (GOTO) is a pair of telescopes on opposite sides of the globe, one at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia and the other at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands. Together, these two instruments complement the observations of gravitational wave detectors such as LIGO, VIRGO, and KAGRA and identify electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational wave sources.
A kilonova is produced when a neutron star collides with another neutron star or a black hole. Once LIGO, VIRGO or KAGRA detectors register a source of gravitational waves, they inform GOTO of the general region on the sky of the event. Within 30 seconds of the alert, the GOTO is configured to scan the sky to identify an electromagnetic adversary, or the same event appearing on optical frequencies. The captured images are analyzed by scientists and sent to the Kilonova Seekers citizen science project.
GOTO telescopes capture large amounts of data, and scientists cannot visually inspect all images. The Kilonova Seekers citizen science project allows anyone to participate in cutting-edge multimessenger astronomy, working with images that no one has seen before. While there is a short orientation, participating in the project does not require special skills or deep knowledge of science. The volunteers’ choices will also be used to train machine learning algorithms that can autonomously hunt down kilonovas.
New images are added daily to the Kilonova Seekers Citizen Science Project. The fourth observing run to hunt for gravitational waves began in May this year after a period of downtime to upgrade the detectors. Interested readers can participate The Kilonova Seekers program on the Zooniverse portal.