Albert Einstein predicted the observation of gravitational waves from the merger of black holes over a century ago. This astrophysical phenomenon remained elusive, however, until their detection at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the summer of 2015. This Nobel Prize-winning discovery added a new technique to the observational astronomy tool box and propelled LIGO onto the public scene.

Since their initial discovery, gravitational waves have been detected by LIGO 4 times – each ascribed to a unique black hole collision. On October 16th, 2017, however, scientists announced yet another occurrence of gravitational waves, not due to merging black holes, but colliding neutron stars. These bizarre, super-dense stars form following the explosive death and gravitational collapse of a star many times more massive than the sun.

The recent neutron star merger has also been linked to a burst of gamma rays (very high-energy light) emitted from the same region of the sky. The coupling of gravitational wave and electromagnetic data represent a first for the field, and will allow scientists to describe important physical processes associated with the event at a previously unattainable level. Astrophysicists have already begun using the data to examine how neutron star mergers may be integral in the production of heavy elements, such as gold and platinum. The future of observational astronomy has literally and figuratively struck gold.

Zachary Eriksen

Original scientific article:
Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Neutron Star Inspiral

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