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Stars collide, changing the world of astronomy

Stars collide, changing the world of astronomy

Once the neutron stars collided, light was visible on Earth for approximately two seconds, but other kinds of light were discovered days and weeks after the event.

Although astronomers have observed gravitational waves before, this marks the first time that an event of this nature was observed through gravitational waves and light.

Scientists announced Monday that they have for the first time detected the ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves as well as light from a spectacular collision of two neutron stars.

"We expect to increase the overall network sensitivity by about a factor of 2", said LIGO spokesperson David Shoemaker. Since then, detecting gravitational waves from colliding black holes has started to feel like familiar territory, with four further such events detected.

Haggard and McGill postdoctoral researchers Melania Nynka and John J. Ruan are the lead authors of a paper, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, that details their team's observations using NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray telescope, trained on the point in the sky identified as the origin of the gravitational wave that reached Earth on August 17. SALT was one of the telescopes that observed the colour of the neutron star merger, which went from blue to red. Iyer computed the gravitational wave forms that could come from mergers of black holes and neutron stars, and these computations formed the basis of the templates for the LIGO and European detectors. Neutron stars are ultra-dense stellar remnants. Another difference from black holes is that their radiation isn't trapped by gravity.

August 17 marked the first observation of such a phenomenon between neutron stars.

Once the general area was spotted, LIGO spread the information to the astronomy community across the globe and within just a few hours of the detection, thousands of astronomers operating across about 70 ground-based and space-based telescopes started searching the sky. "Gravitational wave detectors were all designed for neutron star binaries", explains Blair.

Nine days after the gravitational waves were detected by LIGO and Virgo, Troja's team finally picked up a faint X-ray signal - one so weak only the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory could detect it.

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Scientists detected more gold than the whole of the Earth's mass in the chemical signatures of the explosion, dubbed a "kilonova".

"I can't think of a similar situation in the field of science in my lifetime, where a single event provides so many staggering insights about our universe", Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, said at the press conference.

Interestingly, the August 17 event was almost missed because the gravitational wave signal was not immediately evident in Livingston data due to a burst of noise.

And it's these waves which just allowed astronomers to witness the merging of two neutron stars, far away in a galaxy 130 million light-years from Earth. Nearly at once, email bulletins went out around the world and optical telescopes soon traced the source to a new bright spot near the elliptical galaxy NGC 4993 in the southern skies. While theories have existed for a long time regarding what might occur during such an event, we've now managed to learn quite a bit - including, as it turns out, that the marriage of two neutron stars results in an explosion of gold, platinum, and other heavy metals. "And the video is basically the light that we see after the collision".

"Never before have we seen where in the universe gravitational waves came from; the subsequent avalanche of science was virtually unparalleled in modern astrophysics". The LIGO detector is not yet at full strength.

Like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond, the gravitational waves fanned out across the universe at the speed of light.

"It was clear as can be", says Blair. A neutron star would typically be about 20 kilometres wide and weigh twice as much as the sun. Here, both stars eventually exploded in supernovas and collapsed, producing a binary neutron star. The simultaneous appearance also proves they produce kilonovas, which are believed to be the source of the majority of heavy elements in the universe.

It was here the first discovery of gravitational waves was made in September 2015, confirming a prediction made by Albert Einstein 100 years ago and earning three pioneers of the project a Nobel Prize.

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