Neutron star smashup 'transforms' our understanding of Universe

The LIGO gravitational-wave detectors in Hanford Washington, and Livingston Louisiana

In a major worldwide scientific discovery, researchers including teams here in Ireland, have recorded the merger of the collapsed cores of two extremely dense but small stars, known as neutron stars.

The global team detected the neutron star collision on August 17, alerting astronomers around the world to the likely existence of signals such as light, gamma rays and radio waves from the same event. Watching this event confirmed the theory.

"It was clear to us within minutes that we had a binary neutron star detection", said David Shoemaker, another member of LIGO, which has detectors in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington.

The extraordinary event was first picked up on August 17th of this year when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the USA alongside the VIRGO interferometer in Italy recorded gravitational waves hitting Earth as the neutron stars came together for about 100 seconds.

At almost the same time, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor on NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope space telescope had detected a burst of gamma rays.

Gamma ray bursts are some of the most energetic and deadly pulses of radiation in the universe.

Professor Laura Cadonati, from Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo), which first observed gravitational waves in 2015, said: "This detection has genuinely opened the doors to a new way of doing astrophysics".

Kilonova "flash" seen within one hour Smartt explained the GW signal came from the southern hemisphere, meaning that ESO's suite of large telescopes in Chile were ideally placed to search for any "transient" optical signals relating to the GW and GRB events. They concluded that those two neutron stars were destined to crash into each other in about 300 million years. Neutron stars are ultra-dense stellar remnants. Smith said his group's observation of gravitational waves twice in two years - when no such observations had previously been recorded - exceeded their original expectations.

But the heaviest element a star can make, scientists say, is iron - number 26 on the Periodic Table of 100+ entries.


Scientists have established how heavy elements such as gold and uranium trace their beginnings back to the collision of massive neutron stars.

If we can pinpoint the rate, we can determine the Universe's age, and how much matter it contains.

"Only through NSF's four-decade investment in gravitational-wave observatories, coupled with telescopes that observe from radio to gamma-ray wavelengths, are we able to expand our opportunities to detect new cosmic phenomena and piece together a fresh narrative of the physics of stars in their death throes". I expect it will be remembered as one of the most studied astrophysical events in history. Matt Nicholl, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, submitted a proposal on behalf of the team to take ultraviolet measurements with Hubble - possibly the shortest proposal ever written.

"Now with today's announcement we are seeing the dawn of a new field of "multimessenger astronomy", where detections of transients across the electromagnetic spectrum, along with gravitational waves, are opening up a whole new window on the Universe".

"What happens when neutron stars merge?" Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made?

"We can now say, with some confidence, that Cesium and Tellurium on Earth, which are for example used in atomic clocks, electronics and solar panels, would have been produced in a merger of two neutron stars in our own galaxy, more than 4.5 billion years ago". LIGO's real-time data analysis software noted the gamma-ray burst event and subsequently found a signal in LIGO's second interferometer, causing the team to immediately notify the astronomical community. Longer gamma ray bursts are seen often, during supernovae, but shorter than two-second burst are rare.

The fifth and latest detection was accompanied by a gamma ray burst which scientists said came from nearer in the Universe and was less bright than expected.

He along with Professor Felix Aharonian and Dr Carlo Romoli from DIAS were involved in the High Energy Stereoscopic System or H.E.S.S. consortium that operates a high-energy gamma-ray telescope in Namibia which assisted with the follow-up campaign looking at the high-energy emissions from the explosion.

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