SCIENCE

How The Universe Would Look If You Could See Radio Waves

The word "spectacular" comes to mind.

28/10/2016 5:59 AM AEDT | Updated 28/10/2016 11:42 AM AEDT
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Natasha Hurley-Walker/ICRAR/Curtin and the GLEAM Team
The GLEAM view of the center of the Milky Way in radio color. Red indicates the lowest frequencies, green the middle frequencies and blue the highest frequencies. Each dot is a galaxy with around 300,000 radio galaxies observed as part of the GLEAM survey.

Maybe you’ve always wondered what the universe would look like if you could see radio waves ― or maybe not. Either way, you’ll be wowed by this extraordinary new view of the cosmos as seen by the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in the Australian outback.

Even astronomers are awed by the view, a product of the Galactic and Extragalactic All-Sky MWA (GLEAM) survey of 300,000 galaxies in frequencies from 70 to 230 megahertz.

Those frequencies are invisible to the naked eye.

“The human eye sees by comparing brightness in three different primary colors ― red, green and blue,” Dr. Natasha Hurley-Walker, an early career research fellow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Bentley, Western Australia, and the lead author of a new paper describing the the survey, said in a press statement. “GLEAM does rather better than that, viewing the sky in 20 primary colors.” 

For an even more spectacular viewing experience, the “Gleamoscope” tool (below) lets you see the universe as it appears across the electromagnetic spectrum ― from radio waves and microwaves, to far-infrared and visible light, to X-rays and gamma rays.

The tool is based on the Chromoscope, an interactive graphic produced at Cardiff University in Wales, the New York Times reported.

Hurley-Walker and her collaborators are interested in more than just pretty pictures, as you might imagine.

“Large sky surveys like this are extremely valuable to scientists and they’re used across many areas of astrophysics, often in ways the original researchers could never have imagined,” ICRAR astronomer Dr. Randall Wayth, a co-author of the paper, said in the statement.

Dr. Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, called the GLEAM survey “important research” in an email to The Huffington Post. He added, “It’s great that there are new radio telescopes ... that are mapping the radio waves that come from celestial objects at finer resolutions than we had before.”

Yale astrophysicist Dr. Meg Urry gave a similar assessment of the GLEAM research. In an email to HuffPost, she called it “a gold mine for scientists interested in many different areas.” 

The GLEAM astronomers are using the survey to find out what happens when clusters of galaxies collide, Hurley-Walker said, adding that they’re also able to see remnants of explosions from the oldest stars and supermassive black holes’ “last gasp.”

Of course, the real gasps will be the ones from the people who see the image.