What happens when neutron stars collide?
How are gold and other heavy elements made?
How are short wave gamma-ray burst created?
These were three of the major, decades-old questions answered after astronomers witness collision of two neutron stars for the first time on August 17.
During the industry-shaking discovery, first publicized this morning, astronomers detected gravitational waves from the cataclysmic collision of two neutron stars 130 million years ago.
Neutron stars, born when giant stars explode in supernovas, are incredibly dense entities comprised solely of neutrons. They are about the size of San Francisco but have about 1.5 times the mass of the sun.
The crash, referred to by scientists as “kilanova” generated gravitational waves, or cosmic ripples mighty enough to warp the fabric of the universe.
The signal was first picked up by Virgo interferometer in Europe, then by Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana and Washington state milliseconds after. After detecting the impact, scientists at roughly 7 observatories around the globe scrambled to direct their telescopes on the tiny spot in the sky.
“What is amazing about this discovery is it is the first time we’ve got a full picture of one of the most violent, cataclysmic events in the universe,” explained executive director of Ligo, Dave Reitze in a press conference. “This is the most intense observational campaign there has ever been.”
Using data from the collision, thousands of astronomers are solving much-puzzled mysteries about neutron stars and the origins of gold and other heavy elements — the building blocks of everything from nose piercings to ninja stars to nuclear bombs.
When the stars collided, they produced blue, blazing debris that coalesced into gold, platinum, uranium, and other heavy elements. All the debris was spewed in opposite directions across the universe. This confirmed what scientists had suspected — neutron stars were responsible for the production of most of the universe’s heavier elements. Based on the new data, astronomers believe neutron star collisions could generate more than half of all elements heavier than iron.
The event also provided insight into the creation of short wave gamma rays, which are focused beams of radiation that could obliterate life on any planet in its path. Scientists first detected these dangerous forces in the 1960’s, and theorized that neutron star mergers may be have been responsible for their origins. Now, their theorizes have been confirmed
Astronomers have described the witnessing of the collision as the event they’d been waiting for for two decades. The astronomical community has been pouring over data since the discovery, and is expected to study the neutron star merger for years to come.
Photo credit: National Geographic