Space missions set to observe violent cosmic events

European space missions will allow astronomers to observe some of the most violent cosmic events in the universe, researchers say.

Collisions of supermassive black holes may be simultaneously observable in both gravitational waves and X-rays at the beginning of the next decade due to two major observatories set for launch in the early 2030s by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Athena is an X-ray observatory mission set to launch in 2031, followed by Lisa (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) detecting and measuring gravitational waves in 2034.

Scientists from the University of Birmingham writing in the Nature Astronomy journal say this will provide an unprecedented opportunity to create multi-messenger maps of cosmic events and answer some long-standing questions about the evolution of the universe.

They say this could range from the collision of supermassive black holes to the “swallowing up” of stellar compact objects like neutron stars.

“The prospect of simultaneous observations of these events is uncharted territory, and could lead to huge advances,” said Dr Sean McGee, lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Birmingham.

“This promises to be a revolution in our understanding of supermassive black holes and how they growth within galaxies.”

Co-author Professor Alberto Vecchio added: “I have worked on Lisa for 20 years and the prospect of combining forces with the most powerful X-ray eyes ever designed to look right at the centre of galaxies promises to make this long haul even more rewarding.

“It is difficult to predict exactly what we’re going to discover: we should just buckle up, because it is going to be quite a ride.”

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