WASHINGTON – An international astronomical team announced on Monday it had succeeded in simultaneously detecting both light and gravity waves resulting from the fusion of a binary neutron star that caused a kilonova, an event one thousand times more powerful than a standard supernova explosion.
Some 130 million light-years away in the NGC 4993 galaxy, within the constellation Hydra, two neutron stars merged, releasing gravitational waves, gamma-ray bursts and X-rays.
This type of event was predicted decades ago, but had never been witnessed in real time until Aug. 17.
Even now, astronomers remain unsure if a new neutron star has been created after the fusion or if it may have given birth to a black hole.
US National Science foundation spokesperson France Cordova summed decades of patience with a victorious, “We did it!” on behalf of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detectors teams (Hanford and Livingston) in the United States and the Virgo detector in Italy, two of the scientific organizations spearheading the search for gravitational waves.
The actual collision – the first-ever and most precise detection of a neutron star merger – was witnessed by the miles-long LIGO detectors in the United States and the Virgo detector in Italy.
The ultrasensitive detectors are able to measure the stretching and squeezing of gravitational waves.
Some 1.7 seconds later, the Fermi space Gamma Ray detector telescope detected a short burst of gamma rays from the same region.
There is evidence that the resulting kilonova has formed heavy elements such as platinum and gold, among other substantial periodical elements that result from a neutron star event, the densest stars we have knowledge of.
A spoonful of a neutron star would weigh around 1 billion tons.
The neutron star merger, dubbed GW170817, was immediately announced to other observatories around the world.
The first visible light of the event was detected 11 hours later.
The LIGO-VIRGO interferometer teams have published their research in Monday’s issue of Science, and will also publish their findings in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The search for Einstein’s gravitational waves has been underway for nearly half a century, ever since MIT and Caltech researchers first designed a device to detect them.
This event has been heralded no less than “the dawn of a new era” in humanity’s observation of the Universe.