Meet the UCD researcher whose software sniffs out powerful gamma-ray bursts

12 Apr 2018

Dr Antonio Martin-Carillo, assistant professor of the UCD School of Physics. Image: UCD/TEDx

With his laboratory in the vastness of outer space, Dr Antonio Martin-Carillo of UCD is finding ways to sniff out traces of powerful gamma-ray bursts.

Trying to find a specific example of a cosmic phenomenon in the vastness of the universe is like trying to find a needle in a haystack – if that haystack was the size of our planet.

That is why researchers are incredibly reliant on the software and tools necessary to help find these events, and one such researcher developing this technology is Dr Antonio Martin-Carillo of the University College Dublin (UCD) School of Physics.

The Madrid native originally completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics with astronomy and theoretical physics at the Complutense University of Madrid before going on to work at the European Space Agency (ESA) for two years.

In 2007, he moved to Dublin, where he completed his PhD and postdoc in astrophysics at UCD. He is now an assistant professor at the School of Physics and a member of the UCD Space Science Group.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I knew I wanted to be an astrophysicist at about the age of eight.

I remember that it was a rainy day at school and we could not go outside during our lunch break, so our teacher decided to show us a documentary about stars and galaxies.

By the time I got home later that day, I was already hooked. I remember asking my mother what I had to do to become an astronomer. She said: “You have to study for degrees in physics and mathematics.” From that moment, my goals were set!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Currently, my research at UCD is primarily focused on gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) and pulsars due to my involvement on the Watcher Robotic Telescope in South Africa, which has expanded to include almost any transient event that happens in space, such as a star that dies in the form of a supernova or eruptions coming from supermassive black holes.

With the discovery of the first gravitational wave in 2015, we opened the window to a whole new type of astronomy that uses gravity instead of light to study the universe.

And now, with the discovery of the first neutron star merger through gravitational waves and light, we have witnessed the birth of the new multi-messenger era of astronomy, where information is carried out by both light and gravity.

What software tools have you developed?

I have developed a tool capable of extremely high-resolution searches of periodic signals. Initially conceived for the study of pulsars, this tool is now broadly used for almost any astronomical source that has periodic signals.

Major advantages of this tool are its speed – 150pc faster than previous tools – and its ability to analyse the data with little or no additional input by the user.

A second software tool I have developed is an autonomous pipeline to analyse systematically all the observations carried out by the Watcher Robotic Telescope.

For every image taken by Watcher, we might see between 10 and 1,000 objects in the field. The tool that I developed searches for any object detected in the field, analyses it and alerts us if it has suffered any significant change on its emission.

Additionally, I am a member of the Athena space observatory team, a large mission selected by ESA to be launched in 2028 to study the x-ray universe with a new generation of instruments.

I am also a member of two medium-class missions proposed to ESA, called e-Astrogam (a gamma-ray space observatory) and Theseus (a multi-wavelength space observatory). These missions are currently under study by ESA and if one of them is selected, it will be launched by 2035.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Probably one of the biggest challenges is securing sufficient funding to build a dynamic research team. Funding for basic, fundamental research is currently not widely enough available in Ireland.

While there has been an increase in research funding as a result of the Government’s Innovation 2020 strategy, we are still a long way off meeting the targets set out by it for increased public and private investment in research.

Similarly, an increase in capital funding announced in last year’s budget allowed Ireland to join the European Southern Observatory, which is a significant development for us researchers in the UCD School of Physics and is in line with the Innovation 2020 strategy. But it would be a major step forward if Ireland was also able to join CERN.

Also, in other fields of physics or even chemistry and biology, you can control your laboratory environment and repeat your experiment as many times as you want. In astronomy, you have one single chance to catch an event and study it in as much detail as possible. This is one of the reasons why we are continuously proposing new missions with higher capabilities.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Many people confuse astrology with astronomy, or simply think that astrology has some scientific background.

Also, recently, it is very popular to describe some of the full moons as ‘super moons’ or, during eclipses, to refer to the moon as the ‘blood moon’.

These are not scientific names and, even though they might help encourage people to look up to the skies, they can create false expectations of what they are going to see. I am also very active on social networks, where I share my astrophotography and I explain the physics behind it with simple words.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

At the moment, my biggest focus is on observing more GRBs with simultaneous detections of gravitational waves. This is going to help us understand the physics of these events by giving us a much more complete picture.

For example, one aspect almost ignored until now was the viewing angle between the jet of the GRB and Earth. Depending on how we see the jet, the emission is expected to have slightly different properties.

Thanks to the recent discovery of a GRB with gravitational waves, known as GRB170817, we have seen how critical this factor is on the emission we observed.

You can check out Dr Martin-Carillo discussing his work and the importance of gravitational waves at his TEDx UCD talk here.

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