New iPhone App Shows Cosmic Explosions in Real-Time
Screenshots from the Transient Events app that lets users track cosmic explosions in real-time.
CREDIT: LSST Corporation
A new iPhone app called "Transient Events" highlights cosmic events such as exploding supernovae and comets streaking through the solar system as soon as telescopes spot them.
The app – available for free for the iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad – uses real-time observation data from the University of Arizona's Catalina Sky Survey to monitor transient objects, or objects that change in brightness or position.
Users select events that interest them and the images are downloaded from the Skyalert database, housed at Caltech. Next, users receive a reference picture and four subsequent images taken over the course of 40 minutes – the images that led to the object's discovery.
"With Transient Events, amateur and professional astronomers can monitor what's happening in the night sky," said Stephen Larson, founder of the Catalina Sky Survey. "If they see something of particular interest, they can point their telescopes at the object to take a closer look."
The Catalina Sky Survey employs two telescopes on Mount Lemmon outside of Tucson and one telescope in Australia to scan large swaths of sky.
A universe full of action
Although the night sky appears fairly static to the casual observer – aside from the occasional shooting star – observations made over time reveal a surprisingly dynamic universe: Entire galaxies brighten and dim and certain stars that tightly circle each other occasionally flare up as they rip stellar matter from each other's gravitational grasp.
Transient Events draws from this data, offering a real-time glimpse of the action in the universe – a feature that sets it apart from other astronomical apps , according to its designers.
"There aren't nearly enough telescopes to catch what is going on in the universe around us, so we're only scratching the surface," said Edward Beshore, who now leads the Catalina Sky Survey and is a senior staff scientist at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab and Steward Observatory.
A model for future telescopic discoveries
Transient Events was developed in collaboration with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a Tucson-based, non-profit group that's building a telescope to survey vast stretches of the universe. With a mirror that measures 8.4 meters (27.5 feet) in diameter (now under construction at Steward Observatory's Mirror Lab) and the world's largest digital camera that will have more than three billion pixels, the instrument will probe deep into space and detect the faintest of objects.
"When the LSST comes online, it will issue tens of thousands of alerts every night for transient objects," said Suzanne Jacoby, the LSST's manager for public education and outreach.
"The Transient Events application is a prototype for the way the LSST is going to work, allowing us to practice now with a manageable number of alerts," she said. "It uses the same principles that will be used by LSST during science operations: Data about changing objects are gathered and provided to others in real-time for follow-up observations and monitoring."
Transient Events uses the operator's location to determine if the object of interest is above the horizon and visible. The user also can receive notifications shortly after an event is discovered.
The app's developers are hoping to add additional surveys as they come online in the future, for example near-Earth objects such as asteroids and comets traveling nearby.