Sunday | October 22, 2017
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Stellar studies hurt by gridlock


Tribune-Herald staff writer

With the partial government shutdown ending Wednesday, a nationwide system of radio telescopes — including one on Mauna Kea — can now be put back online.

But the astronomers who operate what’s known as the Very Long Baseline Array also have another job, said VLBA Director Dale Frail. That’s to assess the damage to their research.

“The impact is still hard to evaluate,” said Frail, speaking by phone from New Mexico on Thursday. “I think our biggest concern is the astrometric programs. We are going to try to get started this weekend to work our way through those programs.”

The array consists of 10 telescopes across the United States that detect radio waves, which allows them to see what optical telescopes can’t.

It is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The NRAO lost funding as a result of the shutdown, prompting the array to be temporarily closed.

With Earth constantly in motion, the telescopes have to work within certain windows of time to complete their measurements, Frail explained.

He said he fears that half of the measurements being taken at the time of the shutdown may be deemed worthless as a result.

“Half of them can get done; the rest are just lost,” Frail estimated.

“We’re losing a year’s worth of research,” including measurements of “motions of spiral arms of galaxies and nearby neutron stars.”

Frail said he is also concerned the telescopes may have also missed an opportunity to document a rare and exciting event for researchers — a black hole becoming active.

A few days before the shutdown began, he said NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array — or NuSTAR — satellite detected a burst of “hard X-rays” coming from a black hole in another galaxy.

Frail called the X-rays the “death cry of matter spiraling into a black hole.” He said they could mean that the black hole began to consume an object, possibly a star.

“It’s likely related to some strange feeding phenomenon in the black hole,” he said. “We don’t know what. We were scheduled to image that.”

While some black holes are being fed matter on a regular basis, it’s rare to see one get “turned on,” Frail said.

He estimated that such incidents may only occur once every 100,000 years per galaxy.

The events are important to study because the conditions can’t be replicated, Frail said.

“There are black holes constantly getting fed; there are some sitting there doing nothing,” he said. “We don’t know why that is.”

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