Colliding stars reveal their gravitational wave secrets

Pauline Gross
October 17, 2017

As Phys.org reports, the observation also solved several physics riddles - including how much of the universe's gold, platinum, mercury and other heavy elements were formed. Two neutron stars, collapsed cores of stars so dense that a teaspoon of their matter would weigh 1 billion tons, danced ever faster and closer together until they collided, said Carnegie Institution astronomer Maria Drout.

The global team detected the neutron star collision on August 17, alerting astronomers around the world to the likely existence of signals such as light, gamma rays and radio waves from the same event. The detection, by the Ligo team, has confirmed long-held theories about what happens when two of these powerful objects come together.

Astronomers have spoken of the discovery that kilonova is responsible for creating the majority of elements such as gold as opening a "new chapter in astrophysics".

On Aug. 17, LIGO and Virgo, its European counterpart, detected gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars 130 million light years away, an event dubbed GW170817, Tech announced in its release Monday morning. Around the same time, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor on NASA's Fermi space telescope had detected a burst of gamma rays.

Seconds later, a blast of high-energy gamma-rays - the most energetic kind of light - punched through the erupting cloud. A shudder - a gravitational wave - was sent out across the fabric of space-time.

Many large teams of astronomers across the world began working feverishly to find the event on the sky's dome, using optical telescopes. The host galaxy of the incident is about 130 million light years from Earth.

Over subsequent weeks, an extensive observation campaign using a variety of instruments was mounted around the globe and in space to try to learn more about what had caused the new pinpoint of light.

Never seen before in astronomy: the merger of two neutron stars has been observed and picked apart for the first time.

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The team, led by Professor Smartt, also discovered the first visible and infrared light associated with the new gravitational wave source. Scientists had suspected neutron star collisions had enough power to create heavier elements, but weren't certain until they witnessed it. "It resets the board for what astronomy is going to look like in the years to come, now that we have multiple ways of simultaneously probing a transient and violent universe".

UM Physics Professor Keith Riles, who is the leader of the Michigan Gravitational Wave Group and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration's Detection Committee, said the discoveries are among the most significant and exciting he has witnessed in his career.

His mathematics showed that massive accelerating objects - such as neutron stars or black holes - that orbit each other distort both space and time and emit a type of radiation known as gravitational waves. The event was observed in a variety of wavelengths, including optical, infra-red and X-ray, and it was seen to turn from blue to red during the event. I expect it will be remembered as one of the most studied astrophysical events in history.

The detection is another feather in the cap for German physicist Albert Einstein, who first predicted gravitational waves more than 100 years ago.

"Now with today's announcement we are seeing the dawn of a new field of "multimessenger astronomy", where detections of transients across the electromagnetic spectrum, along with gravitational waves, are opening up a whole new window on the Universe".

"We already knew that iron came from a stellar explosion, the calcium in your bones came from stars and now we know the gold in your wedding ring came from merging neutron stars", said University of California Santa Cruz's Ryan Foley. This time, they reported a two-minute-long increase in frequency that took two minutes to finally stop.

"This is the first time a gamma-ray burst has been seen whose jet wasn't directly pointed at Earth", said Corsi, an assistant professor at Texas Tech.

"These discoveries give momentum to the case for supporting Irish astronomers' participation in worldwide consortia that operate at the frontier of fundamental research, on a scale that can not be achieved by any single institute or country", she said.

Other reports by GizPress

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