The aim of Global Jet Watch is to make the world's first continuous, round-the-clock detailed monitoring of back hole systems in our Galaxy known as microquasars. This is inspired by our recent investigations on the prototypical microquasar SS433, also known as the "Cosmic Corkscrew". Observing these objects throughout entire orbital periods, precession periods, and flaring events will allow us to understand the detailed interplay between accretion, jets and winds.
The means by which the jets of matter (and with them, angular momentum) are ejected from the vicinity of a black hole are poorly understood. This is because the timescales on which changes are seen in the jets associated with quasars—the massive black holes that lurk in the centre of active galaxies—in response to variations in their fuelling, can be hundreds or thousands of years. Microquasars offer us a unique opportunity to study black holes and jets; they exhibit all the same phenomena as their larger cousins, but speeded up to timescales more friendly to astronomers.
The microquasar SS433 persistently ejects jets of plasma at a quarter of the speed of light, about an axis which precesses approximately every six months to produce the characteristic corkscrew shape. We have developed a technique to study individual 'bullets' of matter as they emerge, but the exploitation of this incredible scientific resource is hindered by the near-impossibility of obtaining sustained monitoring with sufficient time-resolution to follow the rapid changes. It's immensely tricky to coax different observatories to coordinate observations, and so Global Jet Watch was developed as a unique solution to this problem
We propose to deploy small telescopes, strategically separated in India, Chile, Australia and South Africa. These telescopes—with specially designed instrumentation built here in Oxford—will be placed at girls schools in each location, and each school will have links with a local professional astronomer. Each night, the schoolgirls will obtain a spectrum of the high-speed jets which are emitted from SS433, a black hole in our Galaxy. Astrophysicists frequently consider timescales of millions of years, but the appearance of this object varies from day to day and from hour to hour! The schools' participation will make possible the monitoring of this unique object every few hours, something which would otherwise be impossible given the time constraints imposed on the use of professional telescopes.
Analysis of the data obtained by the school observatories will be rapidly processed by computers in Oxford, and a web interface will be developed to provide the schools with results so that the schoolchildren can monitor the progress of the rapidly evolving jets themselves, and understand how their observations tie up with those obtained by our other schools around the world. Rather than simply learning about scientific discoveries, the participating pupils will be making the discoveries themselves.
In return, the schools will gain a top of the range observing facility, which they will be free to use for the rest of the night. Such a telescope is an invaluable resource in promoting interest in astronomy in particular and in science in general, and we hope that the legacy of our project will not just lie in the scientific results, but in inspiring a new generation of scientists.
Satellite images from NASA Visible Earth.