DCU astrophysicist building a richer picture of the skies

4 Nov 2016

Dr Masha Chernyakova. Image: DCU

Dr Masha Chernyakova, an expert in high-energy astrophysics, is discovering more about black holes and binary systems. She spoke to Claire O’Connell about her starry ambitions.

When we look up at the sky, particularly on a clear night away from light pollution, there are lots of stars and planets to see. But our eyes are only registering signals in the optical wavelengths.

If you seek out signals in other wavelengths, such as radio waves, x-rays and gamma rays, a much richer picture emerges. This picture is exactly what Dr Masha Chernyakova is looking for.

A lecturer in astrophysics at Dublin City University (DCU) and a research associate at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, her expertise is in high-energy astrophysics. That’s only part of the puzzle, though, as she is building collaborations across other wavelengths to find out more.

Stranger things

Binary systems

Chernyakova is particularly interested in binary systems, where objects – such as neutron stars or black holes and ‘ordinary’ stars – rotate around each other. “We can see these objects by measuring the high-energy wavelengths from them, and some of these objects can accelerate particles to very high energies, higher than could be possible to do on Earth in CERN,” she explained. “But when you look at the x-ray and radio and optical wavelengths you can find out more too.”

A case in point is PSR B1259-63, a binary system Chernyakova has been studying, which suddenly flared around 70pc of its energy in the GeV energy band.

“At other wavelengths, the flare is surprisingly not that apparent – revealing itself in x-rays only as a change of the post-periastron flux decay rate. The optical data, however, gives us a hint of the disruption of the disk around the hot massive young star, which could be a reason for the flare,” she said.

“Before we saw it, there was no hint that this flare was on the way, so you get a lot of surprises.”

Getting starry eyed

Growing up in Moscow, Chernyakova said she had no particular interest in studying space. “I was not an astronomy kid, I didn’t have a telescope in my room,” she said.

But while studying at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, she started doing research at the affiliated Space Research Institute and became interested in analysing x-rays from space. She went on to do a PhD at the esteemed Lebedev Physical Institute.

She got her first postdoctoral position in Geneva, Switzerland, where she studied gamma-ray signals captured by the INTEGRAL space observatory. Next, she landed in Dublin as a Schrödinger Fellow in DIAS with Felix Aharonian

“I was very excited to work with him,” recalled Chernyakova. “He is really one of the top people in the world in high-energy physics.”

Now based at DCU, Chernyakova likes to spread the word about astrophysics, giving talks at Dunsink Observatory and visiting schools when opportunities arise.

‘People talk about big data – well, in astronomy our datasets are really big and we need to find new methods to store, access and study these huge datasets’

Sky is not the limit

To boost the astrophysics further here, she would like to see Ireland become a member of the Cherenkov Telescope Array. This would see more than hundred telescopes – around 50 in each hemisphere – capturing very high-energy gamma-ray signals from space.

“This will increase the sensitivity of what we can measure at these energies by around a factor of 10 and it will make it possible to go to lower and higher energies than we do now, with current Cherenkov Imaging Arrays, such as H.E.S.S. and MAGIC, and we will not only be able to answer questions but I am pretty sure we will come up with new questions based on what we find,” explained Chernyakova.

“It would be a pity if Ireland [was] not a part of that, but by becoming a member country, we could make it openly available to researchers here.”

Building up the research capacity for high-energy astrophysics in Ireland, particularly among young researchers, could also have knock on-effects, noted Chernyakova.

“People talk about big data – well, in astronomy our datasets are really big and we need to find new methods to store, access and study these huge datasets. Those skills are highly transferable even beyond astronomy and they will be highly beneficial for students to develop.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication