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SA telescopes help trace neutron star collision

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The South African Astronomical Observatory and the Southern African Large Telescope are among the 70 ground- and space-based observatories that observed the explosion of two colliding neutron stars, immediately after their gravitational shock waves were detected by the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

Neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known. They are the remains of massive stars which exploded as supernovae. In this particular event, dubbed GW170817, two such neutron stars spiralled inwards and then collided, emitting gravitational waves that were detectable for about 100 seconds. The collision also resulted in a kilonova explosion of light, initially in the form of gamma rays which were detected by space-based telescopes.  The gamma rays were then followed by X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves.

This allowed astronomers to localise the event within hours and launch follow-up observations by SALT and numerous other telescopes in South Africa and around the world.  South African activities also included the first observations contributing to published scientific results by the MeerKAT radio telescope under construction in the Karoo.

Gravitational waves from colliding black holes were first detected only two years ago, and have been detected three more times since then, leading to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to three US scientists. Black hole collisions, however, are not expected to emit light.  GW170817 is the first time light and gravitational waves from the same event have been observed.

The significance of the present event lies in the combination of the gravitational waves and light.   “Imagine you have only one sense”, explains Petri Vaisanen, Head of SALT Astronomy Operations, who was the observer at SALT during the frantic search for the counterpart for the gravitational wave event.  “All your life you have merely looked at the world.  Two years ago you heard something, voices coming from somewhere around you.   But then, suddenly, you actually see someone talking. How much more will you understand about how the world works when you put those together?  Immensely more.  That to me sums up the momentous discovery, and hints at the possibilities going forward.”

August 18, 2017, the day and night following the LIGO detection and the initial successful searches in Chile for the counterpart, was a busy day for observational astronomers.  “After a flurry of messages and emails that afternoon in Sutherland, I finally got the coordinates”, continues Vaisanen.  “There was a new object, which had caused the whole of space-time to ripple, sitting at the outskirts of the galaxy NGC 4993 some 130 million light-years away.  I knew that everyone with a working telescope in the Southern Hemisphere was scrambling to get data on it.  We decided to drop all other plans for that evening, and went for a spectral observation with SALT, since you need a large telescope for such observations breaking up the light into all its colours.  It was a difficult observation since we had to do it in twilight, before it got properly dark.  I’m very proud of the whole team, SALT was only the third observatory to provide a spectrum of the target, and the first spectrum that clearly started showing anomalous behaviour proving that this was no run-of-the-mill transient event”.

The significance of getting early observations stems from the afterglow of the collision changing very rapidly.  Piecing together the new science from the event requires combining observations spanning the first hours, days and weeks after the merger.  The first SALT spectrum has a very prestigious spot in the combined scientific paper, with thousands of authors and hundreds of institutions. In addition, several, more detailed scientific papers have also been written based on SALT, SAAO and other Sutherland observations.

“Finally, the irony of the moment for me, anxiously sitting at the telescope that evening looking at the new object, was that just three weeks before I had attended a meeting discussing the future of optical searches of gravitational waves and the SAAO part in it.  There were arguments that it could be decades before we are able to localise such events well enough for observations, and it would probably not be worth expending the effort.  It’s amazing how quickly things change.”

Sutherland telescopes reveal the details of the neutron star merger

Theorists have predicted that what follows the initial collision is a “kilonova” explosion— a phenomenon by which the material that is left over from the neutron star collision, which glows with light, is blown out of the immediate region, far out into space. The light-based observations from other large international telescopes show that heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created in these collisions and subsequently distributed throughout the universe – confirming the theory that a major source for the creation of elements heavier than iron does, indeed, results from these neutron star mergers.

The early SALT observations showed that the explosion was relatively bright and blue. Only two or three days later, further observations by SALT, SAAO and other major international telescopes showed that the light was rapidly fading and turning red, due to the dusty debris blocking the bluer light, as predicted by the theory of the evolution of a kilonova explosion. Simultaneously, MASTER (a joint Russian-South African optical telescope located in Sutherland) and  IRSF (Infra-Red Survey Facility; a joint Japanese-South African infrared telescope also in Sutherland) continued to monitor GW170817 for two weeks, showing that it gradually faded in the visible light but brightened in the infrared, consistent with the final stages of the afterglow from the surrounding debris.

The results of this unprecedented event have demonstrated the importance of collaborative multi-messenger observations and mark a new era in astronomy. “The ability of SALT and SAAO telescopes to respond rapidly to unexpected discoveries is a major reason for the success of these observations and will ensure similar successes in the future”, says Dr Stephen Potter, Head of Astronomy at the SAAO. “We are very proud to have played a major role in such a historical event thanks to the sterling efforts and expertise of SAAO and SALT staff who ensure that our observatory is at the forefront of world-class scientific endeavours.”

 

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IoT at starting gate

South Africa is already past the Internet of Things (IoT) hype cycle and well into the mainstream, writes MARK WALKER, associate vice president of Sub-Saharan Africa at International Data Corporation (IDC).

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Projects and pilots are already becoming a commercial reality, tying neatly into the 2017 IDC prediction that 2018 would be the year when the local market took IoT mainstream. Over the next 12-18 months, it is anticipated that IoT implementations will continue to rise in both scope and popularity. Already 23% are in full deployment with 39% in the pilot phase. The value of IoT has been systematically proven and yet its reputation remains tenuous – more than 5% of companies are reluctant to put their money where the trend is – thanks to the shifting sands of IoT perception and success rate.

There are several reasons behind why IoT implementations are failing. The biggest is that organisations don’t know where to start. They know that IoT is something they can harness today and that it can be used to shift outdated modalities and operations. They are aware of the benefits and the case studies. What they don’t know is how to apply this knowledge to their own journey so their IoT story isn’t one of overbearing complexity and rising costs.

Another stumbling block is perception. Yes, there is the futuristic potential with the talking fridge and intelligent desk, but this is not where the real value lies. Organisations are overlooking the challenges that can be solved by realistic IoT, the banal and the boring solutions that leverage systems to deliver on business priorities. IoT’s potential sits within its ability to get the best out of assets and production efficiencies, solving problems in automation, security, and environment.

In addition to this, there is a lack of clarity around return on investment, uncertainty around the benefits, a lack of executive leadership, and concerns around security and the complexities of regulation.  Because IoT is an emerging technology there remains a limited awareness of the true extent of its value proposition and yet 66% of organisations are confident that this value exists.

This percentage poses both a problem and opportunity. On one hand, it showcases the local shift in thinking towards IoT as a technology worth investing into. On the other hand, many companies are seeing the competition invest and leaping blindly in the wrong direction. Stop. IoT is not the same for every business.

It is essential that every company makes its own case for IoT based on its needs and outcomes. Does agriculture have the same challenges as mining? Does one mining company have the same challenges as another? The answer is no. Organisations that want their IoT investment to succeed must reject the idea that they can pick up where another has left off. IoT must be relevant to the business outcome that it needs to achieve. While some use cases may apply to most industries based on specific circumstances, there are different realities and priorities that will demand a different approach and starting point.

Ask – what is the business problem right now and how can technology be leveraged to resolve it?

In the agriculture space, there is a need to improve crop yields and livestock management, improve farm productivity and implement environmental monitoring. In the construction and mining industry, safety and emergency response are a priority alongside workforce and production management. Education shifts the lens towards improving delivery and quality of education, access to advanced learning methods and reducing the costs of learning.  Smart cities want to improve traffic and efficiently deliver public services and healthcare is focusing on wellness, reducing hospital admissions and the security of assets and inventory management.

The technology and solutions selected must speak to these specific challenges.

If there are no insights used to create an IoT solution, it’s the equivalent of having the fastest Ferrari on Rivonia Road in peak traffic. It makes a fantastic noise, but it isn’t going to move any faster than the broken-down sedan in the next lane. Everyone will be impressed with the Ferrari, but the amount of power and the size of the investment mean nothing. It’s in the wrong place.

What differentiates the IoT successes is how a company leverages data to deliver meaningful value-added predictions and actions for personalised efficiencies, convenience, and improved industry processes. To move forward the organisation needs to focus on the business outcomes and not just the technology. They need to localise and adapt by applying context to the problem that’s being solved and explore innovation through partnerships and experimentation.

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ERP underpins food tracking

The food traceability market is expected to reach almost $20 billion by 2022 as increased consumer awareness, strict governance requirements, and advances in technology are resulting in growing standardisation of the segment, says STUART SCANLON, managing director of epic ERP

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Just like any data-driven environment, one of the biggest enablers of this is integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions.

As the name suggests, traceability is the ability to track something through all stages of production, processing, and distribution. When it comes to the food industry, traceability must also enable stakeholders to identify the source of all food inputs that can include anything from raw materials, additives, ingredients, and packaging.

Considering the wealth of data that all these facets generate, it is hardly surprising that systems and processes need to be put in place to manage, analyse, and provide actionable insights. With traceability enabling corrective measures to be taken (think product recalls), having an efficient system is often the difference between life or death when it comes to public health risks.

Expansive solutions

Sceptics argue that traceability simply requires an extensive data warehouse to be done correctly, the reality is quite different. Yes, there are standard data records to be managed, but the real value lies in how all these components are tied together.

ERP provides the digital glue to enable this. With each stakeholder audience requiring different aspects of traceability (and compliance), it is essential for the producer, distributor, and every other organisation in the supply chain, to manage this effectively in a standardised manner.

With so many different companies involved in the food cycle, many using their own, proprietary systems, just consider the complexity of trying to manage traceability. Organisations must not only contend with local challenges, but global ones as well as the import and export of food are big business drivers.

So, even though traceability is vital to keep track of everything in this complex cycle, it is also imperative to monitor the ingredients and factories where items are produced. Having expansive solutions that must track the entire process from ‘cradle to grave’ is an imperative. Not only is this vital from a safety perspective, but from cost and reputational management aspects as well. Just think of the recent listeriosis issue in South Africa and the impact it has had on all parties in that supply chain.

Efficiency improvements

Thanks to the increasing digital transformation efforts by companies in the food industry, traceability becomes a more effective process. It is no longer a case of using on-premise solutions that can be compromised but having hosted ones that provide more effective fail-safes.

In a market segment that requires strict compliance and regulatory requirements to be met, cloud-based solutions can provide everyone in the supply chain with a more secure (and tamper-resistant) solution than many of the legacy approaches of old.

This is not to say ERP requires the one or the other. Instead, there needs to be a transition provided between the two scenarios that empowers those in the food supply chain to maximise the insights (and benefits) derived from traceability.

Now, more than ever, traceability is a business priority. Having the correct foundation through effective ERP is essential if a business can manage its growth and meet legislative requirements into the future.

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