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The history of astronomy has provided variable sources of unexpected kinds—from novae recorded in oriental archives, rapid radio, optical and high-energy changes in white dwarfs, neutron star and black hole binaries, to recent discoveries with satellites. A brief overview is given, as a prelude to a conference that anticipates a tidal wave of observations and discoveries to be made at all wavelengths during the next five to ten years.
The last five years have seen an explosion of activity to monitor the sky at optical wavelengths. The following summarizes an overview of the range of experiments currently being, or soon to be, undertaken in both cataloguing and monitoring the sky, and suggests scientific opportunities for the short- to medium- term in the arena of optical transient astronomy. In so doing, it applies the philosophy described by Warner (page 3) to the gamut of variability studies that are now burgeoning in observational astronomy.
LOFAR is a ground-breaking low-frequency radio telescope that is currently nearing completion across northern Europe. As a software telescope with no moving parts, enormous fields of view and multi-beaming, it has fantastic potential for the exploration of the time-variable universe. In this brief paper I outline LOFAR's capabilities, our plans to use it for a range of transient searches, and some crude estimated rates of transient detections.
During the last 10 years we have seen a revolution in the quality and quantity of data for time-series photometry. The two satellites MOST and WIRE were the precursors for dedicated time-series missions. CoRoT (launched in 2006) has now observed more than 100,000 targets for exoplanet studies and a few hundred stars for asteroseismology, while Kepler (launched in 2009) is producing extended time-series data for years, aiming to discover Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone. We discuss the accuracy of some of the parameters one may extract from the high-quality data from such photometric space missions, including the prospects for detecting oscillation-period changes due to real-time stellar evolution.
The last 20 years have seen revolutionary developments of large-scale synoptic surveys of the sky, both from the ground (e.g., the MACHO and OGLE projects, which were targetted at micro-lensing studies) and in space (e.g., the X-ray All-Sky Monitor onboard RXTE). These utilised small and medium-sized telescopes to search for transient-like events, but they have now built up a huge database of long-term light-curves, thereby enabling archival research on a wide range of objects that has not been possible hitherto. This is illustrated with examples of long time-scale optical and X-ray variability studies from the field of X-ray binary research: the high-mass BeX binaries in the SMC (using MACHO and OGLE), and the bright galactic-bulge X-ray sources (mostly LMXBs, using RXTE/ASM). As such facilities develop greater capabilities in future and at other wavelengths (developments in South Africa will be described), real-time data processing will allow much more rapid follow-up studies with the new generation of queue-scheduled large telescopes such as SALT.
The large-scale surveys such as PTF, CRTS and Pan-STARRS-1 that have emerged within the past 5 years or so employ digital databases and modern analysis tools to accentuate research into Time Domain Astronomy (TDA). Preparations are underway for LSST which, in another 6 years, will usher in the second decade of modern TDA. By that time the Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard (DASCH) project will have made available to the community the full sky Historical TDA database and digitized images for a century (1890–1990) of coverage. We describe the current DASCH development and some initial results, and outline plans for the “production scanning” phase and data distribution which is to begin in 2012. That will open a 100-year window into temporal astrophysics, revealing rare transients and (especially) astrophysical phenomena that vary on time-scales of a decade. It will also provide context and archival comparisons for the deeper modern surveys.
Surveys, surveys, and yet more surveys! During the last decade we have all witnessed a flourishing of imaging and spectroscopic surveys, of different sizes and over different areas of the sky. Although initially set-up for specific scientific goals, they should all share a multi-purpose flavour that can boost their impact and their exploitation by the scientific community. There are, however, fields that need more dedicated observing strategies, coordination and possibly data infrastructure in order to exploit fully these huge datasets. Time-domain astronomy is one of them. In the following, I will review the very recent developments in spectroscopic surveys, and I will report on what ESO has been involved in and has committed itself to do.
The dynamic transient gamma-ray sky is revealing many interesting results, largely due to findings by Fermi and Swift. The list includes new twists on gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), a GeV flare from a symbiotic star, GeV flares from the Crab Nebula, high-energy emission from novae and supernovae, and, within the last year, a new type of object discovered by Swift—a jetted tidal disruption event. In this review we present highlights of these exciting discoveries. A new mission concept called Lobster is also described; it would monitor the X-ray sky at order-of-magnitude higher sensitivity than current missions can.
The radio band is known to be rich in variable and transient sources, but exploration of it has only begun only in the last few years. Relevant time scales are as small as a fraction of a nanosecond (giant pulses from the Crab pulsar). Short transients (less than one second, say) have signal structure in the time-frequency plane at the very least because of interstellar plasma propagation effects (dispersion and scattering), and in some cases due to emission structure. Optimal detection requires handling a range of signal types in the time-frequency plane. Short bursts by necessity have very large effective radiation brightness temperatures associated with coherent emission processes. This paper surveys relevant source classes and summarizes propagation effects that must be considered to optimize detection in large-scale surveys. Scattering horizons for the interstellar and intergalactic media are defined, and the role of the radio band in panchromatic and multimessenger studies is discussed.
One of the principal motivations of wide-field and synoptic surveys is the search for, and study of, transients. By transients I mean those sources that arise from the background, are detectable for some time, and then fade away to oblivion. Transients in distant galaxies need to be sufficiently bright as to be detectable, and in almost all cases those transients are catastrophic events, marking the deaths of stars. Exemplars include supernovæ and gamma-ray bursts. In our own Galaxy, the transients are strongly variable stars, and in almost all cases are at best cataclysmic rather than catastrophic. Exemplars include flares from M dwarfs, novæ of all sorts (dwarf novæ, recurrent novæ, classical novæ, X-ray novæ) and instabilities in the surface layers of stars such as S Dor or η Carina. In the nearby Universe (say out to the Virgo cluster) we have sufficient sensitivity to see novæ. In 1 I review the history of transients (which is intimately related to the advent of wide-field telescopic imaging). In 2 I summarize wide-field imaging projects, and I then review the motivations that led to the design of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF). Next comes a summary of the astronomical returns from PTF (3), and that is followed by lessons that I have learnt from PTF (4). I conclude that, during this decade, the study of optical transients will continue to flourish (and may even accelerate as surveys at other wavelengths—notably radio, UV and X-ray—come on-line). Furthermore, it is highly likely that there will be a proliferation of highly-specialized searches for transients. Those searches may well remain active even in the era of LSST (5). I end the article by discussing the importance of follow-up telescopes for transient object studies—a topical issue, given the Portfolio Review that is being undertaken in the US.
Until recently, the venerable field of cosmic explosions has been plagued with a glaring six-magnitude luminosity gap between the brightest novæ and the faintest supernovæ. A key science driver of the Palomar Transient Factory was a systematic search for optical transients that are fainter, faster and rarer than supernovæ. Theorists predict a variety of mechanisms to produce transients in that “gap”, and observers have the best chance of finding them in the local universe. The talk presented the discoveries and the unique physics of cosmic explosions which bridge that gap between novæ and supernovæ. As Fig. 1 illustrates, there is now evidence of multiple, distinct populations of rare transients in the “gap”.
The prospects are described for studies of large samples of supernovæ and other variable objects with two proposed future facilities: (1) the European Extremely Large Telescope, a general-purpose 40-m-class ground-based optical-IR telescope, and (2) Euclid, an M-class mission within ESA's Cosmic Vision programme, primarily for cosmology. The capabilities and status of the two facilities are briefly described. Their suitability for the study of time-varying objects in general, and of supernovæ in particular, is discussed. It is shown that Euclid has the potential for NIR imaging of a few thousand Type Ia supernovæ to intermediate z, while the E-ELT will be capable of spectroscopic and classification measurements of Type Ia supernovæ to z=4.
This paper summarizes a search for radio-wavelength counterparts to candidate gravitational-wave events. The identification of an electromagnetic counterpart could provide a more complete understanding of a gravitational-wave event, including such characteristics as the location and the nature of the progenitor. We used the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) to search six galaxies which were identified as potential hosts for two candidate gravitational-wave events. We summarize our procedures and discuss preliminary results.
The theoretical community is beginning to appreciate (and predict) the potential diversity of explosive outcomes from stellar evolution, while the supernovæ surveys are finding new kinds of supernovæ. This talk described two such new supernovæ. The first are ultraluminous core collapse supernovæ with radiated energies approaching 1051 ergs. The talk went on to present our recent work that explains these events with late-time energy deposition from rapidly rotating, highly magnetized neutron stars: magnetars. It concluded with our theoretical work on helium shell detonations on accreting white dwarfs that predict a new class of supernovæ called “.Ia's”. The first such candidate may well have been found by the Palomar Transient Factory.
Tycho Brahe's observations of a supernova in 1572 challenged the contemporaneous European view of the cosmos that the celestial realm was unchanging. 439 years later we have once again seen the light that Tycho saw, as some of the light from the 1572 supernova is reflected off dust and is only now reaching Earth. These light echoes, as well as ones detected from other transients and variables, give us a very rare opportunity in astronomy: direct observation of the cause (the supernova explosion) and the effect (the supernova remnant) of the same astronomical event. Furthermore, in some cases we can compare light echoes at different angles around a supernova remnant, and thus investigate possible asymmetry in the supernova explosion. In addition, in cases where the scattering dust is favorably positioned, the geometric distance to the SN remnant can be determined using polarization measurements. These techniques have been successfully applied to various transients in the last decade, and the talk gave an overview of the scientific results and techniques, with a particular focus on the challenges we will face in the current and upcoming wide-field time-domain surveys.
Good measurements of visual binary stars (position angle and angular separation) have been made for nearly 200 years. Radial-velocity observers have exhibited less patience; when the orbital periods of late-type stars in the catalogue published in 1978 are sorted into bins half a logarithmic unit wide, the modal bin is the one with periods between 3 and 10 days. The same treatment of the writer's orbits shows the modal bin to be the one between 1000 and 3000 days. Of course the spectroscopists cannot quickly catch up the 200 years that the visual observers have been going, but many spectroscopic orbits with periods of decades, and a few of the order of a century, have been published. Technical developments have also been made in ‘visual’ orbit determination, and orbits with periods of only a few days have been determined for certain ‘visual’ binaries. In principle, therefore, the time domains of visual and spectroscopic binaries now largely overlap. Overlap is essential, as it is only by combining both techniques that orbits can be determined in three dimensions, as is necessary for the important objective of determining stellar masses accurately. Nevertheless the actual overlap—objects with accurate measurements by both techniques—remains disappointingly small. There have, however, been unforeseen benefits from the observation of spectroscopic binaries that have unconventionally long orbital periods, not a few of which have proved to be interesting and significant objects in their own right. It has also been shown that binary membership is more common than was once thought (orbits have even been determined for some of the IAU standard radial-velocity stars!); a recent study of the radial velocities of K giants that had been monitored for 45 years found a binary incidence of 30%, whereas a figure of 13.7% was given as recently as 2005 for a similar group.
Astronomical time series are special in that time sampling in them is uneven yet often with periodic gaps due to daytime, moon and seasons. There is therefore a need for special-purpose time-series analysis (TSA) methods. The emergence of massive CCD photometric surveys from the ground and space raises the question of an automatic period search in ≫ 105 light curves. We caution that already at the planning stage it is important to account for the effects of time sampling and analysis methods on the sensitivity of detections. We present a transparent scheme for the classification of period-search methods. We employ tools for evaluating the performance of those methods, according to the type of light curves investigated. In particular we consider sinusoidal and non-sinusoidal oscillations as well as eclipse or transit light curves. From these considerations we draw recommendations for the optimum analysis of astronomical time series. We present briefly the capability of an automatic period-search package Tatry. Finally we discuss the role of Monte Carlo simulations in the analysis of detection sensitivity. As an example, we demonstrate a practical method to account for the bandwidth (multi-trial) penalty in the statistical evaluation of detected periods.
I describe ongoing work developing Bayesian methods for flexible modelling of arrival-time-series data without binning. The aim is to improve the detection and measurement of X-ray and gamma-ray pulsars and of pulses in gamma-ray bursts. The methods use parametric and semi-parametric Poisson point process models for the event rate, and by design have close connections to conventional frequentist methods that are currently used in time-domain astronomy.
With the advent of surveys such as the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey, the Palomar Transient Factory, Pan-STARRS and Gaia, the search for variable objects and transient events is rapidly accelerating. There are, however important existing data-sets from instruments not originally designed to find such events. One example of such an instrument is the Solar Mass Ejection Imager (SMEI), an all-sky space-based differential photometer which is able to produce light curves of bright objects (m ≤ 8) with a 102-minute cadence. In this paper we discuss the use of such an instrument for investigations of novæ, and outline future plans to find other variable objects with this hitherto untapped resource.