Get ready for a new era of astronomy. For the first time in (at least recent) history, scientists have witnessed both light and gravitational waves coming from the same source. The event that has happened, which is essentially a merger of two superdense stellar beings, is classified as a neutron star by those who study it.
The event proves a lot of things in regards to what happens in space, which until now have been strictly theoretical. The collision gives solid evidence that these type of events are one of the main sources of much of the universe’s gold, platinum and other heavy elements.
When asked to describe the incident, Richard O’Shaughnessy, a scientist with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project had one response. “Superlatives fail.”
“This is a transformation in the way that we’re going to do astronomy,” O’Shaughnessy, who’s based at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, told Space.com. “It’s fantastic.”
In his theory of general relativity, Albert Einstein first introduced the idea of gravitational waves. Einstein work was published in 1916, and almost a century later in 2015, LIGO recorded the theory coming to life by two merging black holes. The event earned three project members from LIGO the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.
This latest find is the fifth of its kind, but with the growth of technology and interest in the phenomenon, scientists are more eager than ever to get to the bottom of why it happens and what it could cause. Announced this morning at a press conference, the team at LIGO explained what happened.
“On Aug. 17, 2017, LIGO’s two detectors, which are located in Louisiana and Washington state, picked up a signal that lasted about 100 seconds — far longer than the fraction-of-a-second ‘chirps’ spawned by merging black holes,” said the team.
“It immediately appeared to us the source [of the gravitational waves] was likely to be neutron stars, the other coveted source we were hoping to see — and promising the world we would see,” David Shoemaker, a spokesman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and a senior research scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said in a statement to reporters.
More to come in the future for gravitational waves
While digging deeper into the investigation of the latest event, which has been named GW170817 by LIGO, has also proven that the waves move at the speed of light. The space telescope detected the gamma-ray burst just 2 seconds after the gravitational-wave signal ended. This helps astronomers learn a bit more about neuron stars than they did before and opens up many more experimental possibilities.
“There are some types of things that neutron stars could be made of that we’re sure they’re not made of, because they didn’t squish that much” during the merger, O’Shaughnessy said.
Further studies can also help provide another way to calibrate distances to celestial objects, said the CfA’s Avi Loeb, who also chairs Harvard University’s astronomy department.
O’Shaughnessy says there are many other possibilities as well. “I think probably the most exciting thing of all is really that it’s the beginning,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It resets the board for what astronomy is going to look like in the years to come, now that we have multiple ways of simultaneously probing a transient and violent universe.”
It’ll be exciting to follow this process to see exactly what power gravitational waves hold. What we do know, though, is that space exploration is currently on the cusp of a big change thanks to this discovery.