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Astronomers Captured Colliding Neutron Stars For The First Time In History

NASA Goddard/YouTube screengrab

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Astronomers have witnessed the collision of two neutron stars for the first time in recorded history, a rare event that sent shockwaves throughout the universe.

The event adds to a mystery of where Earth got its heaviest elements — like gold, platinum and other dense elements — and lends validity to the relatively new science of detecting gravitational waves.

“It’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry. It’s the fulfillment of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people’s efforts, but it’s also the fulfillment of an idea suddenly becoming real,” Peter Saulson, a researcher at Syracuse University who works on detecting gravitational waves, said during a Monday press conference.

NASA’s Goddard Space Center animated the swirling celestial bodies as they collided, releasing atoms of gold and platinum and other elements into the universe, and sending ripples in space time all the way to earth.

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Astronomers and astrophysicists observed the event Aug. 17, when a Hanford, Wash. antenna set up to detect gravitational waves noticed a little blip. The signal detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) antenna caught the eye of the scientists, who verified it at other antenna locations around the world. The waves detected by the antenna lasted a fraction of a second, and when translated into sound waves made a tiny chirp.

A few seconds after LIGO detected the chirp, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope orbiting earth registered a spike in gamma rays. The spike level was associated with the formation of black holes. Before the August event, all recorded spikes in gravitational waves were caused by colliding black holes, which don’t show any visible light.

The event in August helps confirm the use of gravitational waves to measure space time, as first theorized by Albert Einstein in 1916.

After the gamma rays and gravitational waves were detected, astronomers took up the chase to try and catch the collision of the neutron stars on telescopes. A Chilean telescope at the Carnegie Institution on Cerro Las Campanas was the first to find the galaxy where the stars were doing their dance.

After looking through nine galaxies, the telescope detected two circulating neutrons in NGC 4993, a galaxy some 130 million light years from Earth. Eleven hours after the first alerts from the gravitational wave detectors, astronomers saw “the first optical photons from a kilonova humankind has ever collected,” Dr. Ryan Foley, researcher at the University of California, told The New York Times.

Here’s what the collision looked like on the telescope:

Neutron kilonova, Aug. 17, 2017. (Harvard Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics)

Neutron kilonova, Aug. 17, 2017. (Harvard Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics)

“We saw a totally new phenomenon that has never before been seen by humans,” said Andy Howell of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s an amazing thing that may not be duplicated in our lifetimes.”

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