On Sunday, April 16, 2017, Dr. James Webb, FIU astrophysicist and director of the Stocker AstroScience Center, collaborated with University of Florida astrophysicist Dr. Steve Eikenberry to observe a unique Blazar (called S5 0716+71) with the largest optical telescope in the world. The Grand Telescipo Canarias (GTC) has a mirror which is 10.4 meters in diameter and is the largest steerable ground-based optical telescope in the world. It is located at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma, on the rim of an extinct volcano, 7,438 feet above sea level.

Blazars are distant proto-galaxies that feature a super-massive black hole buried within the galaxies’ core. Material trying to fall into the black hole gets re-routed out along a jet composed of magnetic and electric field lines and accelerated to nearly the speed of light. In the case of S5 0716+71, this jet happens to be pointed in the direction of the Earth allowing us to see “down the pipe” as it were. The jet emits light strongly in our direction by an exotic process called synchrotron emission. This “relativistic laboratory” allows us a unique opportunity to study the strong fields and high energy particles and their interactions. It will take months to reduce and analyze the data, but this is the first observation of its kind of one of these exotic objects and hopefully will provide an important test for Dr. Webb’s model of blazar variability.

Photo credit: Dr. James Webb

Dr. Webb set up the FIU “Starship” control room located in the Stocker AstroScience Center to monitor the GTC observations and control the SARA Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope (JKT), which is also located at the La Palma observatory. Together, the two telescopes simultaneously observed the Blazar in the optical and infrared (IR) parts of the spectrum. This will afford the astronomers with a first ever high-time resolution look at the brightness fluctuations across the optical-infrared spectrum. The GTC, with unprecedented accuracy and time resolution, also looked at the polarization in the IR light during the four-hour long observation. This information is crucial in testing Dr. Webb’s model of Blazar micro-variability which he has been working on, along with his students, for over five years.