Unprecedented star collision observed through light and gravitational waves

16 October, 2017, 21:38 | Author: Oscar Goodwin
  • The LIGO gravitational-wave detectors in Hanford Washington, and Livingston Louisiana

It's among the biggest news for science in decades, because the findings help shed light on many aspects of astrophysics, including the origins of cosmic explosions known as gamma-ray bursts and of some heavy elements in the universe, such as gold.

The gravity from a neutron star is nearly as intense as a black hole, and when two of these powerful objects come into contact with each other they start a dramatic dance, swirling around drawing each other closer together until, eventually, they merge. Until now, they'd made only four such detections, and each time the distortions in space-time were caused by the collision of two black holes.

Scientists from the University of Birmingham's Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, who have worked on the Advanced LIGO project since its inception, have been celebrating the announcement. "We know they exist, but the physical laws that govern them have been hard to pin down".

Because LIGO and VIRGO were only able to narrow down the area of sky from where the waves came from to a section containing millions of stars, an global collaborative effort was mounted to try to pinpoint the source. Signals of other forms of light, or electromagnetic radiation-X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio waves-were also detected.

An artist's conception of two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO.

This visualization shows the coalescence of two orbiting neutron stars. Produced when the largest stars come of the end of their life, run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves, neutron stars are the smallest and most dense stars can get.

These observations extraordinary are the subject of a dozen scientific articles that are published Monday morning in the journals Nature, Nature, Astronomy and Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Barry Barish (another of this year's Nobel Prize winners) internationalised the LIGO observatories, bringing Britain, Germany and Australia into the collaboration. The two stars newly discovered by LIGO took far longer to do so. Smith said his group's observation of gravitational waves twice in two years - when no such observations had previously been recorded - exceeded their original expectations.

Many astrophysicists modelled the violent coalescence of merging neutron stars.

Heavier elements - everything from the carbon in our bodies to the oxygen we breathe - were formed later by nuclear reactions in the cores of stars fusing atoms together. The event is being called "GW170817" in reference to the day it was discovered: August 17, 2017. They have a mass about 1.5 times that of the sun packed into a sphere around 20 kilometers in diameter. Within minutes the source direction had been roughly localised. All told, hundreds of astronomers around the world, using telescopes on all seven continents and in space, followed this event frantically as the source disappeared into twilight. Three days later, he confirmed "New LIGO". The host galaxy of the incident is about 130 million light years from Earth. Because of the delayed onset in the radio, we can tell we're observing off-axis. "That's one of the things that's incredible about Einstein's theory".

The event is a treasure trove of astrophysics.

The fifth and latest detection was accompanied by a gamma ray burst which scientists said came from nearer in the Universe and was less bright than expected. Schutz's key observation is that the rate at which the binary's frequency changes is directly related to the system's intrinsic gravitational wave "loudness".

A neutron star merger should trigger a very strong gamma-ray burst, with most of the energy released in a fairly narrow beam called a jet.

"We can now say, with some confidence, that Cesium and Tellurium on Earth, which are for example used in atomic clocks, electronics and solar panels, would have been produced in a merger of two neutron stars in our own galaxy, more than 4.5 billion years ago".

In addition to telling us about the distance to the event, each of these measurements such as GW170817 provides a wealth of data about the masses and other properties of the objects involved.

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