Dawn of an Era: Astronomers Hear and See Cosmic Collision

Video This artist’s view shows the moments before and the nine days following a kilonova. Two neutron stars spiral inward creating gravitational waves. After the merger a jet produces gamma rays, while expanding radioactive debr

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A paper describing the scientific results is published in the journal Physical Review Letters, with a flurry of other papers to appear soon in Nature, Science and other journals. When two neutron stars combine, they spiral around each other, growing closer and closer over time. Previously observed gravitational waves were an outcome of black hole mergers and they were comparatively stronger. Black holes are just a mass of spinning objects with no information coming out of them. NASA researchers believe that the neutron stars which resulted in kilonova had more mass than the Sun and were of the size of Washington DC.

An artist's illustration of two neutron stars merging together and creating jets of matter and light. Another difference from black holes is that their radiation isn't trapped by gravity.

Astronomers had predicted that a neutron star merger would produce something that was 1,000 times as bright as a nova.

The CGWA also had a hand in the optical aspect of the August 17 detection, via its Transient Optical Robotic Observatory of the South, a collaboration of scientists at UTRGV, Texas A&M and the National University of Cordoba (Argentina).

As well, 12 hours later, several optical telescopes announce to have spotted a point of light in this portion of the sky. "Gravitational wave detectors were all designed for neutron star binaries", explains Blair.

Ask a physicist and they'll tell you that gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space time. From this, the astronomers immediately suspected that these waves are the result of a merger of two objects that are much smaller than black holes.

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"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.

However, just 1.7 seconds after the gravitational waves from GW170817 arrived at the Earth, NASA's Fermi satellite observed a short burst of gamma rays in the same general region of the sky.

A long time ago, in a galaxy 130 million light-years away from Earth, two dead stars called neutrons merged into a kilonova and set off a spectacular explosion that rippled through the universe. The observatory, which is located in Argentina, serves as a "follow-up" instrument for LIGO and Virgo, searching for visual confirmation in deep space when gravitational waves are detected.

"Even though this was an event that had never been seen before in human history, what it looked like was deeply familiar because it resembled very closely the predictions we had been making", Daniel Kasen, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR. Electromagnetic telescopes around the world and in space were able to detect the supernova burst of light given off by the colliding stars.

What we know about gravitational waves and how they teach us about the distant universe has been blown wide open again. The LIGO detector is not yet at full strength.

The discovery of gravitational waves was so important that three U.S scientists behind it were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics this month.

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"It was clear as can be", says Blair. This is produced when material rich in subatomic particles known as neutrons from the initial merger is ejected at great speed by the gamma ray burst.

The discovery is huge because it confirms long-standing theories and simulations, the first of which was posited by Albert Einstein in 1916, in physics, mathematics and astronomy.

Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime caused by ultra-powerful cosmic explosions.

"Before this event, it was like we were sitting in an IMAX theatre with blindfolds on", he says.

Eventually there may even be advance publicity for cosmic spectacles like this. And while simulations were performed on what might happen in the aftermath of a merger, it was only recently that both the LIGO and VIRGO observatories were able to simultaneously capture the gravitational waves alongside the dozens of other installations detecting the light. "We have models that show how from a almost homogenous soup of radiation and gas and dark matter our universe formed clumps of galaxies and then stars, and we believe we understand how those stars evolved through nuclear burning and died to give rise to neutron stars and black holes".

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