Texas A&M University astronomer Lucas Macri (left) presented Mauricio Macri, President of Argentina, with a stuffed replica of the Texas A&M mascot, Reveille. (Credit: Lucas Macri.)


Texas ties forged seven years ago during the International Year of Astronomy have taken two Lone Star State astronomers global in a quest for a new Argentina-based telescope to aid in the hunt for LIGO-based evidence beyond gravitational waves -- specifically, that of neutron star mergers.

While in Buenos Aires this week for an international conference, Texas A&M University's Lucas Macri and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's Mario Díaz took in the ultimate in local scenes -- La Casa Rosada, or "the Pink House," otherwise known as the Argentine equivalent of the White House, during their by-invitation audience with the President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri.

Macri met Macri (no relation) on Monday (March 28) at 9:40 a.m. Texas time along with Díaz, a member of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration that recently announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes one billion years ago. Díaz is director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, home to the largest group of gravitational-wave researchers in Texas and one of the largest across the United States involved in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration global research effort.

Macri, a member of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, notes that LIGO also is sensitive to the merger of two neutron stars, among other intriguing celestial possibilities of interest to the collaboration and fields beyond astrophysics.

"For several years now, Prof. Díaz and I, along with several others, have been trying to set up a telescope in northwestern Argentina to image the 'flash' of light that would be associated with the merger of two neutron stars," Macri said. "The idea is that LIGO detects the ripples in space-time and immediately sends an alert to astronomers around the world so they can start looking for the flash of light.

"President Macri heard that Prof. Díaz and I were headed to a conference in Argentina next week and invited us to visit him at the Pink House to discuss the project along with the Minister of Science."

Because LIGO can only give a very rough idea of which way the ripples came from, Macri says that astronomers have to cover a lot of the sky to try to see the flash -- at least 1,000 times the size of the full moon if the information from LIGO is very good, and 10 times more if it's not so good. In addition to depth and breadth, Macri says it would require speed -- telescopes capable of covering a large fraction of the sky quickly, given that the flash is only expected to last a few days and nights.

Macri and Díaz -- who first met in 2009 when Díaz was at UT-Brownsville -- started discussions in 2012 regarding a collaboration between their two universities and the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba to build such a robotic telescope, known as TOROS (Transient Optical Robotic Observatory of the South). Texas A&M astronomer Darren DePoy, along with members of Texas A&M's Charles R. '62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory, provided a design for a telescope and camera that could do the job. Macri then calculated how deep the images should be and how much of the sky the astronomers could cover each night. Beyond astronomers, he since has been working with Texas A&M statistician James Long to develop statistical methods and models for subsequent data analysis.

"In 2013, Darren, Texas A&M astronomer Jennifer Marshall, my grad student Ryan Oelkers and I traveled to the site in northwestern Argentina for a week-long scientific campaign," Macri said. "While we haven't received funding yet, the recent detection of gravitational waves by LIGO has increased the interest in our project by both the United States and Argentine National Science Foundations."

Macri says the team currently has a $1 million proposal under consideration by the Argentine NSF to further develop the observatory at Cordon Macón where the telescope would be located. In addition, they recently submitted a white paper to the U.S. NSF to lay the groundwork for a $1 million request to fund the telescope and camera.

"These would be commercially available products, but the Munnerlyn Lab would modify the telescope and build a lens to increase its field of view," Macri said.

Macri, DePoy and Marshall are involved in a broader international "collaboration of many collaborations," as Macri describes it, that recently submitted a paper detailing the search for the "flash" from the first LIGO event.

"At the time, we didn't know if it was two black holes (from which no flash would be expected) or two neutron stars (from which a flash would be expected)," Macri said. "It turned out to be a merger of two black holes, so we searched in vain, but we still learned a lot."

Macri joined the Texas A&M faculty in 2008 after spending six years as a postdoctoral Hubble Fellow and Goldberg Fellow at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). Born and raised in Buenos Aires, he obtained his bachelor's of science degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1995 and his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 2001.

Nicholas B. Suntzeff, Texas A&M distinguished professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Texas A&M astronomy program, says that while LIGO gives us new eyes into the universe, follow-up research is necessary to see where in the universe these objects are located -- study that requires telescopes which can move immediately to the position detected by LIGO.

"The Argentinian-Texan collaboration will place a telescope in the Macón mountain range in the Andes at a site which is very clear, dry and away from the light pollution of nearby cities," Suntzeff said. "One of the most exciting developments for next decade in astronomical research will be the search for these powerful but rapid flashes of energy in the sky, which will require access to robotic telescopes and rapid analysis of the data before the event fades from view. It will also require collaboration between the astronomers, statisticians and computer scientists to invent novel techniques in data science and statistics to sift the data for these rare occurrences in what some call the 'violent universe.'

"I am very proud of Dr. Macri's leadership in bringing this important collaboration to Texas and to our university. Through his work on the measurement of the expansion rate of the universe, Dr. Macri has also become a leader in the study of variable and transient objects. His work with LIGO and the construction of a robotic telescope is an exciting extension of his research on the Hubble constant. The statistical study of the cosmos is one of the most important new areas of research in the upcoming decade, and our collaboration will put us at the forefront of this emerging field."

To learn more about TOROS, visit http://toros.phys.utb.edu/TOROS/Welcome.html.

For additional information on Macri's research or Texas A&M astronomy, go to http://astronomy.tamu.edu.

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Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Lucas Macri, (979) 862-2763 or lmacri@physics.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Lucas Macri (right) poses with University of Texas Rio Grande Valley astronomer Mario Díaz outside La Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. (Credit: Lucas Macri.)

  • Lucas Macri (right) with Chief of Staff Marcos Peña. (Credit: Lucas Macri.)

  • Dome that will house the telescope at the Cordon Macón site in the Atacama region of northwestern Argentina. (Credit: Universidad Nacional de Córdoba.)

  • Dr. Lucas Macri

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