Radio Galaxy Zoo: conferencing in Italy (Day 4)

Final day of the conference. Still pro-pasta, but may have hit my personal limit on gelato and/or red wine.

We had only a half day for the final day of the Bologna workshop on extragalactic radio surveys. After a tasty conference dinner at the historic Palazzo Re Enzo, we devoted the morning to AGN physics. This is the counterpart to the sessions we had on star formation in galaxies on Monday; almost all continuum radio emission that we detect in individual galaxies is either due to a thermal component from star formation or synchrotron and free-free emission that’s produced in some way by the central supermassive black hole, known as an active galactic nucleus (AGN).

Leith Godfrey (ASTRON) gave a really neat talk on “remnant” radio galaxies, which refers to galaxies that still have active radio emission from the heated plasma in distant lobes, but for which we don’t see the jet because the black has shut down its active phase some time ago (in our observed frame). We can identify these remnants both via morphology (big radio lobes with no jet or core) and through their radio spectra – energy losses from the particles cause a characteristic curved shape which you see if you plot frequency vs. radio flux density. Leith has been doing statistical studies of remnants, finding that less than 1% of bright radio sources are in a dying phase. This is interesting since the number of sources we observe constrains the timescales on which radio galaxies die. It also points toward certain physical properties – there are strong adiabatic losses after the jet switches off, but the lobes seem to remain very high-pressured compared to their environments right up until the end of their lives.

Marisa Brienza (ASTRON) gave the talk immediately following on a new remnant, named BLOB1, that she and her team just detected with LOFAR. LOFAR, a low-frequency array located in the Netherlands and other European countries, is just ramping up full operations, but will be a hugely powerful instrument for increasing the size of these samples over the next decade.

Example of a new radio remnant, named BLOB1, detected with the LOFAR telescope at 137 MHz. From Brienza et al. (2015).

Example of a new radio remnant, named BLOB1, detected with the LOFAR telescope at 137 MHz. From Brienza et al. (2015).

After several more talks, Mike Garrett (ASTRON/Leiden) gave some closing remarks on the conference, including some summaries of what had been discussed and where he thought the future of extragalactic radio sources was going. I was really stoked that RGZ was one of the first results that he specifically cited as being important; Mike mentioned both citizen science and new distributed software routines as being crucial for dealing with the potentially billions of new celestial sources that telescopes will detect in the next decade. The role of citizen scientists in radio astronomy may change – I’ve talked to scientists at this conference about someday doing tasks other than morphology identification, for example – and we’ll definitely have to increase the interplay between the citizen science datasets and machine learning algorithms to maximize our survey results. But, as Mike said on his final slide, the present state of radio surveys is very bright indeed, and we have every reason to think that the best is yet to come.

It’s been a fantastic workshop, and I’m grateful to the conference organizers for accepting my talk and offering financial assistance, the American Astronomical Society for covering my travel costs, and the NSF for partially supporting my work on RGZ at the University of Minnesota. Looking forward to a day or so of sightseeing this weekend, but I’m inspired to get back to work next week and continue being part of such a vibrant scientific community.

About Kyle Willett

Kyle Willett is a postdoc and astronomer at the University of Minnesota. He works as a member of the Galaxy Zoo team, and gets to study galaxy morphology and evolution, AGN, blazars, megamasers, citizen science engagement, and many other cool things.

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