Space odyssey hunts for answers on fast explosions

16 January 2023

University of Canterbury researchers are exploring galaxies far, far away to solve the mystery of what powers the fastest explosions in the universe.

  • Mt John sky cropped

    University of Canterbury astrophysicist Ryan Ridden-Harper has been awarded a Te Pūtea Rangahau Marsden Fast-Start grant of $360,000 to help extend knowledge of the fastest explosions in the universe.


University of Canterbury postdoctoral researcher Dr Ryan Ridden-Harper.

Unlocking knowledge about the universe is a passion for astrophysicist Dr Ryan Ridden-Harper, a postdoctoral researcher at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC).

His latest project is taking him to the extreme ends of physics in a quest to uncover explanations for the universe’s fastest explosions, which space telescopes detect as flashes or bursts that rapidly fade away.

These types of transient astronomical events come and go so quickly that they are easily missed and difficult to observe. Dr Ridden-Harper says while it is thought exploding stars, massive neutron stars and black holes could generate the explosions, no-one knows for sure what powers them.

“I’ve always been curious about how the natural world works,” he says. “After I first looked out into space the mystery and wonder captured me. While all aspects of astronomy are fascinating, I found the idea of watching stars in galaxies millions of light years away from us explode and change before our eyes incredible. More amazing still is the extreme energies and physics that are involved in these explosions.”

Dr Ridden-Harper has been awarded a Te Pūtea Rangahau Marsden Fast-Start grant of $360,000 to help extend knowledge of this phenomena.

“I’m excited to be starting this project, which represents the culmination of what I’ve been working on since I was a PhD student in 2016,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time building the tools we need, and now we’re ready for this next phase.”

The Marsden grant will be used to kickstart a UC astrophysics research group, supporting a number of students. “There will be opportunities to discover some really interesting things, including some that perhaps we didn’t set out to find. When you study what’s out in the universe, it’s like exploring the unknown,” Dr Ridden-Harper says.

Using novel analysis techniques, the UC research team will delve into archival data from two space telescopes - Kepler and Nasa’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) - to find previously undetected transient events and create a comprehensive survey of the fastest explosions in the universe.

“Most transient events we know to exist last for at least a couple of days,” Dr Ridden-Harper says. “With this project, we hope to find ones that will fade away in brightness in a day or less, down to an hour or so. Working with international collaborators, we will then sort through our discoveries to find fast transients that occurred in distant galaxies. We can then work with our theoretical astrophysicists to delve deeper into what could be powering these really fast explosions.

“In this project we’ll use telescopes around the world to follow up our discoveries. These, combined with the Kepler and TESS data, cover large sections of the sky over a long timeframe, making this the most in-depth survey of its kind to date in a rapidly evolving area of astronomy.”

Also working with Dr Ridden-Harper on this project is Associate Investigator Dr Armin Rest based at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where Dr Ridden-Harper completed his first postdoctoral research. The team also includes other researchers in the United States (Johns Hopkins University, University of Illinois, University of California Santa Cruz, Pennsylvania State University, University of Notre Dame) and Australia (the Australian National University).

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