Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Eye on the sky

Los Alamos provides grad-student role in unraveling the mind-bending physics around super-massive black holes.
July 10, 2017
a "feeding" supermassive black hole

This artist's concept shows a "feeding," or active, supermassive black hole with a jet streaming outward at nearly the speed of light. Such active black holes are often found at the hearts of elliptical galaxies. Not all black holes have jets, but when they do, the jets can be pointed in any direction. If a jet happens to shine at Earth, the object is called a blazar. Blazars are categorized differently than other active black holes with jets because they have unique properties when viewed by telescopes.CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Science on the Hill: Eye on the sky

by Spencer Johnson

Every night in a remote clearing called Fenton Hill high in the Jemez Mountains of central New Mexico, a bank of robotically controlled telescopes tilt their lenses to the sky for another round of observation through digital imaging. Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Thinking Telescopes project is watching for celestial transients including high-power cosmic flashes called, and like all science, it can be messy work.

To keep the project clicking along, Los Alamos scientists routinely install equipment upgrades, maintain the site, and refine the sophisticated machine-learning computer programs that process those images and extract useful data from them. Each week the system amasses 100,000 digital images of the heavens, some of which are compromised by clouds, wind gusts, focus problems, and so on.

For a graduate student at the Lab taking a year’s break between master’s and Ph.D. studies, working with state-of-the-art autonomous telescopes that can make fundamental discoveries feels light years beyond the classroom.

This story first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.