Astronomers want to use robots to help keep tabs on black holes

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Dec 16, 2015

Astronomers have been studying black holes for a while now, but the next step is apparently to get robots in on the action.

A team at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory is working on a plan to use robots to handle the task of actually monitoring black holes and the clouds around them. As Discovery notes, the technique is called reverberation mapping, though in the past it has required a whole lot of effort and time at a telescope. But the proposal aims to use a robot to study the radiation and analyze the gases in the “accretion disk” around the black hole and compare it with the glow of gas farther away.

Here’s an excerpt from a statement put together by the observatory explaining the concept:

“This technique takes advantage of the fact that accretion disks don't always shine at the same brightness. A disk can flare brightly as new material falls in … or as magnetic fields cause some of the disk's gas to clump together. Measuring how long it takes the surrounding clouds to brighten as they are illuminated by these flares reveals their distance from the black hole. And measuring the width of the lines in the spectra from these clouds reveals how fast they are moving.”

To test the theory, they’re using a robot observatory with automated telescopes to compile maps at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), which currently consists of 11 automated telescopes in Texas, Hawaii, Australia, South Africa and Chile.

This could be a major breakthrough for space studies, and if we can take advantage of robots to do the more tedious work, it frees up our fleshy human brains to put the pieces together. 

(Via Discovery)