Colliding neutron stars seen by gravity waves and optical telescopes

Oct 19, 2017, 00:25
Colliding neutron stars seen by gravity waves and optical telescopes

The neutron star collision has ushered the next phase in our understanding of gravitational waves by allowing scientists to hear and see them simultaneously.

On August 18th, astronomers witnessed the remains of a neutron star mash-up, which traveled 130 million light years before it was seen by Earthly detectors.

"On that morning, all of our dreams came true".

The discovery, published Monday in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made possible by the massive, laser-based gravitational wave detectors first envisioned by MIT physicist Rainer Weiss half a century ago and by an worldwide network of partner observatories that responded by quickly aiming telescopes and scanning the night sky in search of the light and other electromagnetic radiation that shot across space from the same collision that emitted the gravitational waves.

"Before this event, it was like we were sitting in an IMAX theatre with blindfolds on", he says. Less than two seconds later, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor on NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected a short burst of gamma rays.

"Unlike black holes, neutron star collisions emit other signals such as gamma rays, light and radio waves so astronomers around the world were able to observe the event through telescopes". This time around, the celestial signal stems from an event, which has never been seen before - the merger of two neutron stars.

Soon after the Big Bang, the universe was filled mostly with hydrogen and helium, as these are the lightest elements in the Periodic Table. However, the theory says the heaviest element which can possibly come from a star is iron. For years, astronomers have only been able to guess at where mysterious gamma ray bursts come from, but now the hypothesis that they come from neutron stars colliding seems to be confirmed. In this case, both stars eventually exploded in supernovas and collapsed, producing a binary neutron star.

It yielded 20 scientific papers published in three separate journals and answered a broad array of questions about the cosmos: What happens when neutron stars collide? However, the Hanford signal was good enough to trigger a deeper analysis of the data that quickly located the signature. Each of these gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) spewed energy equal to energy radiated by the sun in 10 billion years which in a matter of seconds. This is the first time researchers have successfully detected the gravitational waves that result from a neutron star merger. For example, we have already used our observations to make the first ever joint measurement of the expansion rate of the universe, using both gravitational waves and light. But Smartt added that, by the time dusk fell in Paranal, the LIGO-Virgo collaboration had refined their localization of the GW signal, to the extent that searching for an electromagnetic counterpart became feasible.

As well as proving Einstein right, the collision has resulted in a batch of new discoveries related to gravitational waves and a spike in astronomical research activity.

Neutron stars, the densest in the universe and measuring just 10km across, are found alone but also in pairs orbiting each other. "Gravitational Wave detection of a binary neutron star merger, together with confirmation and identifying the location of the optical counterpart by conventional telescopes completes the integration of gravitational waves into astronomy", said Dr. Souradeep.

According to Dale Frail of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the kilonova spotted in August is the "first unambiguous detection of a merger of two neutron stars".

For example, observations of gravity from the collisions of high mass objects, like GW170817, are considered one of the few ways to test Einstein's theory.

So where will all these new discoveries lead us?

This energy was picked up by the three advanced gravitational wave laser interferometers, located thousands of kilometres away from each other when the passage of the gravitational wave provides an oscillation of the lengths of their two arms, at the same frequency of the incoming gravitational wave.

"Now, astronomers won't just look at the light from an object, as we've done for hundreds of years, but also listen to it", Tanvir said. He is hopeful that that planned LIGO-India detector, jointly funded by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Department of Science & Technology (DST), "will increase the sensitivity of the global gravitational-wave network and help pinpoint the exact location of the gravitational wave event". "We can expect many more insights into cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, nuclear physics, gravity, and other fields from gravitational wave observations as the 21st century progresses".

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