17 August 2017 – 12:41:04 UTC: For the first time, scientists have directly detected gravitational waves in addition to light from the spectacular collision of two neutron stars.
This marks the first time that a cosmic event has been viewed in both gravitational waves and light. The discovery was made using the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO); the Europe-based Virgo detector; and some 70 ground- and spacebased observatories.
Neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known to exist and are formed when massive stars explode in supernovas. As these neutron stars spiraled together, they emitted gravitational waves that were detectable for about 100 seconds; when they collided, a flash of light in the form of gamma rays was emitted and seen on Earth about two seconds after the gravitational waves. In the days and weeks following the smashup, other forms of light, or electromagnetic radiation — including X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves — were detected.
The image shows the localization of the gravitational-wave (from the LIGO-Virgo 3-detector global network), gamma-ray (by the Fermi and INTEGRAL satellites) and optical (the Swope discovery image) signals from the transient event detected on the 17th of August, 2017. The colored areas show the sky localization regions estimated by the gamma-ray observatories (in blue) and by the gravitational-wave detectors (in green). The insert shows the location of the apparent known galaxy NGC4993: on the top image, recorded almost 11 hours after the gravitational-wave and gamma-ray signals had been detected, a new source (marked by a reticle) is visible: it was not there on the bottom picture, taken about three weeks before the event.
The observations have given astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to probe a collision of two neutron stars. For example, observations made by the U.S. Gemini Observatory, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope reveal signatures of recently synthesized material, including gold and platinum, solving a decadeslong mystery of where about half of all elements heavier than iron are produced.
Theorists have predicted that when neutron stars collide, they should give off gravitational waves and gamma rays, along with powerful jets that emit light across the electromagnetic spectrum. The gamma-ray burst detected by Fermi, and soon thereafter confirmed by the European Space Agency’s gamma-ray observatory INTEGRAL, is what’s called a short gamma-ray burst; the new observations confirm that at least some short gamma-ray bursts are generated by the merging of neutron stars — something that was only theorized before. “For decades we’ve suspected short gamma-ray bursts were powered by neutron star mergers,” says Fermi Project Scientist Julie McEnery of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“Now, with the incredible data from LIGO and Virgo for this event, we have the answer. The gravitational waves tell us that the merging objects had masses consistent with neutron stars, and the flash of gamma rays tells us that the objects are unlikely to be black holes, since a collision of black holes is not expected to give off light.”
At the moment of collision, the bulk of the two neutron stars merged into one ultradense object, emitting a “fireball” of gamma rays. The initial gamma-ray measurements, combined with the gravitational-wave detection, also provide confirmation for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light.