We are living through one of the most exciting eras within the field of astrophysics.
Gravitational waves (ripples in spacetime caused by huge, violent events such as colliding black holes) were discovered at the start of this year, having been predicted by Albert Einstein precisely 100 years ago.
Work also is well underway to understand Gamma Ray Bursts: the most powerful explosions in the universe. Carole Mundell, head of astrophysics at the University of Bath, is playing a leading role.
The intense electromagnetic radiation from Gamma Ray Bursts is believed to be released as a huge star dies, collapsing and exploding to form a black hole, quark star or neutron star.
“These are the brightest objects in the universe. They illuminate all of the universe between them and us, and that means we can probe the nature of the early universe. However they can be gone in a few to tens of seconds,” Mundell tells Techworld.
Discovered in 1997, Gamma Ray Bursts represent the most powerful sources of electromagnetic radiation in the night sky, however the light they emit is very short-lived.
That means those wishing to capture these events must turn to some very advanced technology, something Mundell has pioneered over a decade at both Bath and Liverpool John Moore's University.
Her team have led development of new software for the world's largest fully autonomous robotic telescopes both on the earth and in space to capture the fast-fading light from Gamma Ray Bursts, thus allowing them to probe the physics behind these huge explosions. Previously this work depended a lot more on human observation.
“I'd get messages on my phone saying a new black hole had been born, and that could happen at any time. When my sons were babies I'd be tired because of that, not them,” she says.
By pioneering this technology, Mundell discovered the first ever direct evidence of large-scale ordered magnetic fields, perhaps paving the way for greater understanding of the fundamental physics behind how the universe works.
“Gamma-ray bursts are the most extreme particle accelerators in the universe. They're objects of all kinds of extremes: extreme speeds, extreme gravity, extreme magnetic fields. So they're the ultimate laboratory for testing or laws of physics,” she explained previously to CS Monitor.
The next step is to hopefully use X-Ray satellites to be able to get a large-scale view of all Gamma Ray Bursts over the night sky, measuring polarisation and not just the brightness of the burst.
“I study smaller black holes from dying stars, but there are supermassive black holes a billion times bigger than that which lie at the heart of galaxies and we think are vital to evolution. They spew out jets of plasma, like big versions of gamma ray bursts. If approved, this X-Ray mission will give us a completely different view of the universe” Mundell says.
“We've got a whole new era in astrophysics coming. Ultimately one of the big questions we'd love to solve is to unify the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics. As of this year we've proven the expanding universe via gravitational waves, but we still can't combine the largest and smallest scale of physics. We're at the beginning of that journey,” she adds.
Mundell started by reading physics and astronomy at Glasgow University, before moving to the University of Manchester for her PhD and research fellowship. She worked at the University of Maryland in the US for two years, then came back to the UK in 1999 with a Royal Society Research Fellowship at Liverpool John Moore's University. In 2011 she won a prestigious Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award for the study 'black hole-driven explosions and the dynamic universe'. She took up her current post leading astrophysics at the University of Bath in May 2015. She won 'Woman of the Year' in the 2016 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards.
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