Waterloo astrophysicist sees exciting times in x-ray observatory launch and gravitational waves discovery

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dr. Brian McNamaraDr. Brian McNamara spoke with both CBC News and Radio Canada International’s Marc Montgomery about his involvement with ASTRO-H, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) flagship space-based x-ray astronomy observatory and the landmark discovery of gravitational waves announced yesterday.

ASTRO-H, originally scheduled to launch Friday, February 12, 2016 at 3:20 am EST from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, is now scheduled to launch on Wednesday, February 17. The state-of-art observatory marks the first time Canada is a full partner in an Earth-orbiting x-ray astronomy mission.
The ASTRO-H launch can be viewed online via JAXA’s livestream YouTube channel.

McNamara, a member of ASTRO-H’s Science Working Group, will be one of a handful of scientists worldwide with exclusive access to the data during the first year, which includes gathering data about great clusters of galaxies and super-massive black holes, some of the largest concentrations of mass in the universe.

X-ray telescopes are perfect black hole detectors,” said Professor McNamara, from Waterloo’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Most of the mass accelerating towards a black hole is expelled back into space, carrying an enormous amount of energy with it. Black holes are actually some of the most efficient power generators in the Universe.”

The centre of our Milky Way harbours a massive black hole weighting four million times the Sun.

“In fact, we think black holes exist in the centres of all massive galaxies,” says McNamara. “An x-ray observatory of this calibre will allow us to observe this energy emission directly.”

a black hole spinningIt was the event of two black holes colliding that led to Thursday’s announcement by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration of their detection of gravitational waves, a phenomenon predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein.

In his Radio Canada International interview, McNamara sees this finding as an opportunity for scientists to finally resolve the inherent conflict between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity theory.

“Both theories work well on their own domain, but now we can study processes related to both quantum mechanics and relativity in the near vicinity of black holes at the same time,” said McNamara.

Even better, the announcement puts an end to the debate around the existence of these mysterious structures.

This is proof positive of the existence of black holes,” said McNamara. “It opens up a whole new window into the study of the universe and in particular the high-energy universe in the vicinity of neutron stars and black holes.”

The international ASTRO-H mission includes participation from institutions in the US, Canada and Europe, as well as the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Canada’s participation in the mission was arranged in return for the CSA providing the Canadian ASTRO-H Metrology System (CAMS), a critical laser alignment system for the observatory’s instruments.

The project’s Canadian science team also includes astronomers Dr. Luigi Gallo of Saint Mary’s University (team lead) and Dr. Samar Safi Harb of the University of Manitoba.

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