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Space conference celebrates UK advancements in space science and Earth observation

Leading figures from the UK space industry gathered in Oxfordshire this month to discuss the latest advances in space science and Earth observation, learn about some of the industry’s key technology challenges and to hear of the latest major announcements from the UK Space Agency and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Specialists from across research, academia, industry and international partners met at the UK’s main hub for space science, the Harwell Campus near Didcot, for the STFC RAL Space ‘Appleton Space Conference’.

Conference Chair Dr Chris Mutlow, Director of STFC RAL Space, said:

“I am delighted to welcome friends and colleagues from the space sector to Oxfordshire. A wealth of ideas and enthusiasm is being shared today and I, personally, am looking forward to the challenges of the next year. These are exciting times for space and the many new investments announced today in this sector in the UK will enable more small companies to grow. The next year will also be exciting for RAL Space as we’ll be breaking ground on the National Satellite Test Facility, which will help UK companies to be more competitive in a global market.”

The keynote speaker was Dame Julia Slingo, who has recently retired as the Met Office Chief Scientist, and gave her 10 year forecast for climate science and the role of Earth observation.

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Lightest black hole merger detected

Scientists searching for gravitational waves have confirmed yet another detection from their fruitful observation run earlier this year. The latest discovery, dubbed GW170608, was produced by the merger of two very light black holes. One of the black holes had a mass of just 7 times the mass of our sun, where the other had a mass of 12 times that of our sun.

The collision (or merger) happened at a distance of about a thousand million light-years from Earth.

The merger left behind a final black hole 18 times the mass of the sun, meaning that energy equivalent to about 1 solar mass was emitted as gravitational waves during the collision.

Dr John Veitch, who is co-chair of LIGO’s Compact Binary Coalescence Search Group and Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy said:

“GW170608 is the lightest pair of black holes that we have detected so far, which provides us with new opportunities to explore the crossover between gravitational wave astronomy and more conventional forms of astronomy.”

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Crashing neutron stars unlock secrets of the Universe – thanks to UK tech

On 17 August 2017 gravitational waves were detected by both LIGO and Virgo collaborations.

The ‘chirp’-like signal, called GW170817, is a great example of multimessenger astronomy, where just 1.7 seconds after the gravitational waves network saw the signal, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and ESA’s INTErnational Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) both detected a short gamma-ray burst from the same area of the sky.

Signals like chirps and gamma-ray bursts are referred to as ‘triggers’ that start this multimessenger astronomy since they alert the astronomical community to the event, who can then focus their instruments to observe the same patch of sky.

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(The advanced LIGO Livingston detector. LIGO is made up of two twin detectors, two pairs of 4km-long perpendicular pipes, one in Hanford, Washington state, the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Photo Credit: LIGO)

Over 70 different observatories, including the Hubble Telescope, were able to detect remnants of the signal in the form of fading light, the counterpart to the gravitational waves signal.

Since operation began at LIGO and its European counterpart Virgo, based in Italy, this is the fifth time gravitational waves have been detected, where the first event was back in September 2015. This first detection of gravitational waves from a black hole merger was an achievement that was recognized with this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

This is the first time that researchers have detected both light and gravitational waves from the same event and provides the strongest evidence yet that short-duration gamma-ray bursts are caused by mergers of neutron-stars.

The neutron-star merger has also started to shed light on one of the big questions in physics: how heavy elements such as gold and platinum are formed.

Find out more here, where details of the UK contribution to the discovery can be found here.

Winning the Nobel Prize for Physics

With recent news surrounding LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves from a neutron star collision it’s wonderful that the Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.

On 14 September 2015 scientists first detected gravitational waves coming from a black hole merger (where two black holes spiral around each other until they eventually merge together). This resulted in an announcement on 11 February 2016 that the first detection of gravitational waves had been observed.

The result was a milestone in physics and astronomy and confirmed Einstein’s predictions, made over a century ago, marking the beginning of the new and exciting field of gravitational-wave astronomy.


(An artist’s impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.
Credits: NASA, R. Hurt, Caltech-JPL)

There are currently 11 institutes across the UK involved in developing the latest technologies and research in gravitational waves.

To find out more about gravitational waves in general take a look at STFC’s website, where you can find a number of info-graphics and everything you need to know about gravitational waves.