Autonomous robotic telescopes observe blazars and other extreme astronomical phenomena

As many as 10,000 images of these remote high-energy phenomena are imaged every week, then processed via machine learning.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Jul 28, 2017
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are using autonomous robotic telescopes to observe distant extreme but transient phenomena in space.

Blazars, one such phenomenon, are highly intense active galactic nuclei or quasars, associated with the supermassive black holes at the centers of elliptical galaxies.

Possibly the most energetic phenomena in the universe, blazars flash on and off in the form of gamma ray outbursts that can last from hours to weeks.

Jets streaming from the poles of blazars emit radiation in all wavelengths, which travel at light speed.

However, observing them poses a challenge to astronomers because they take place several billion light years away and are unpredictable.

To better understand these powerful explosions and the radiation emissions they produce in both visible light and gamma rays, the Los Alamos National Laboratory has set up an array of "thinking" telescopes in a remote region of New Mexico's Jemez Mountains known as Fenton Hill, from which they digitally image the blazars.

Titled the Rapid Telescopes for Optical Response (RAPTOR), these autonomous telescopes have been tracking and imaging flares produced by blazars, photographing them in visible light, then employing machine learning to process the images using powerful computers.

On average, the telescope array captures about 10,000 images per week.

Gamma ray images and data taken by the telescopes are also processed by laboratory scientists and compared with images of the same events captured by other observatories around the world.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has been a pioneer in the development of machine learning computer software for many years.

In addition to sorting the good images from the unusable ones, the computers sift through the data captured, determining the light magnitude of blazars observed and identifying the processes occurring within them.

Studying blazars can yield crucial information about powerful magnetic fields, radiation, and interaction among subatomic particles as well as provide insight into the behavior of not-well understood supermassive black holes.

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