Namibia part of breakthrough discovery

31 January 2018 | Local News

Namibia was part of a breakthrough discovery in the astrophysics world that gained international recognition last year.

The collaboration that led to the first ever observation of gravitational waves was named as the 'Breakthrough of the Year 2017' by the acclaimed publications Science and Physics World, the journal of the UK Institute of Physics. The result is also on the scientific magazine Nature's list of 'Science Events That Shaped the Year'.

The discovery helps explain how heavy elements are formed and spread in galaxies. It also points to a new method of measuring the distances to remote celestial bodies, because when astronomers have both gravitational waves and light to work with, they can measure remote distances more precisely. Based on the distance measured, they can calculate how fast the universe expands.

According to Dr Michael Backes, the head of the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) Research Unit, gravitational waves were detected on 17 August last year from the collision of two ultra-dense remains of giant stars, called neutron stars.

HESS is a system of four 12-metre and one 28-metre-diameter telescopes, situated in the Khomas Hochland about 120km south-west of Windhoek. The telescopes are operated by an international collaboration of more than 250 researchers from 13 countries.

“As soon as the automatic data analysis procedures had spotted something interesting going on, a message was sent around the world to collaborating observatories to complement this gravitational wave detection with as much coverage by as many different telescopes as possible,” Backes said.

In an unprecedented move, more than 70 observatories around the world followed the call for co-observations, among them the HESS telescopes.

The awards particularly emphasise the collaborative nature of “big science” these days.

“The explosion was easily the most studied event in the history of astronomy, with 3 674 researchers from 953 institutions collaborating on a single paper summarising the merger and its aftermath”, states Science, whereas Physics World is even more explicit in saying that the award was deliberately “given to thousands of scientists working in nearly 50 collaborations worldwide”.

Further, the publications believe that the observation “is a shining example of how our knowledge of the universe can move forwards when people from all over the world join together with a common scientific cause”.

In this big international effort, Namibia was represented by four staff members of the Department of Physics at University of Namibia (Unam), joined by Namibian PhD students at Humboldt University Berlin (Germany) and North-West University (SA).

Unam has been a member of the HESS collaboration since its inception. Currently, there are three Namibian PhD and two MSc students conducting their research in the context of HESS and gamma-ray astronomy in the Department of Physics at Unam.

Out of the more than 3 600 authors from 953 institutes of the observation, five are based at Unam.