Stocker telescope captures really old star stuff blazing our way

A picture of the finder used in the Stocker AstroScience Center showing the observed blazar. The object between the lines in the center is the blazar, the rest of the dots are stars in our galaxy.

Researchers at FIU’s Stocker AstroScience Center often lie in wait, waiting for that unexpected moment when something of galactic proportions crosses before their 24-inch telescope.

Not long ago, Physics Professor James Webb and graduate student Viviana Arroyave pointed the telescope at a blazar they routinely check in on. Blazars are regions at the center of galaxies that emit extremely powerful jets of radiation in the direction of Earth. There is no repetition, no patterns and no predictability as to when one will send light our way. But a long time ago (about 13 billion years, give or take) in this galaxy far, far away (7.36 billion light years to be exact), gas and stars fell into a supermassive black hole in the center of this galaxy the physicists call PKS 1156+295. This astronomical event released a huge amount of energy into space in the form of light. And on April 4 of this year, this light that had been traveling for billions of years arrived at Earth, reflecting off the Stocker telescope’s primary mirror and captured by its camera. The right blazar at the right time.

Webb alerted colleagues throughout his network of astrophysicists. Shortly after, colleagues at Boston University relayed the message that the observation captured at FIU had been confirmed by astronomers in St. Petersburg, Russia. Subsequent observations on April 8 and April 10 via the Stocker telescope revealed the blazar getting increasingly brighter before the outbursts eventually came to a halt.

“Blazars are some of the most energetic objects in the universe and the physical conditions are extreme laboratories for general relativity and particle physics,” Webb said. “By studying them, we can learn about the physical condition of the early universe, and how galaxies form.”

While the blazar appears to have dimmed for now, Webb says the team at Stocker will continue to monitor it for activity. But this blazar serves as a reminder for Webb and his students that astrophysics is part ingenuity, part consistency and part luck.