Gravity has been making waves - literally. Earlier this month, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the first direct detection of gravitational waves two years ago. But astronomers just announced another huge advance in the field of gravitational waves - for the first time, we’ve observed light and gravitational waves from the same source.
There was a pair of orbiting neutron stars in a galaxy (called NGC 4993). Neutron stars are the crushed leftover cores of massive stars (stars more than 8 times the mass of our sun) that long ago exploded as supernovas. There are many such pairs of binaries in this galaxy, and in all the galaxies we can see, but something special was about to happen to this particular pair.
Each time these neutron stars orbited, they would lose a teeny bit of gravitational energy to gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are disturbances in space-time - the very fabric of the universe - that travel at the speed of light. The waves are emitted by any mass that is changing speed or direction, like this pair of orbiting neutron stars. However, the gravitational waves are very faint unless the neutron stars are very close and orbiting around each other very fast.
As luck would have it, the teeny energy loss caused the two neutron stars to get a teeny bit closer to each other and orbit a teeny bit faster. After hundreds of millions of years, all those teeny bits added up, and the neutron stars were *very* close. So close that … BOOM! … they collided. And we witnessed it on Earth on August 17, 2017.
Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
LIGO is a ground-based detector waiting for gravitational waves to pass through its facilities on Earth. When it is active, it can detect them from almost anywhere in space.
The other thing that happened was what we call a gamma-ray burst. When they get very close, the neutron stars break apart and create a spectacular, but short, explosion. For a couple of seconds, our Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope saw gamma-rays from that explosion. Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor is one of our eyes on the sky, looking out for such bursts of gamma-rays that scientists want to catch as soon as they’re happening.
And those gamma-rays came just 1.7 seconds after the gravitational wave signal. The galaxy this occurred in is 130 million light-years away, so the light and gravitational waves were traveling for 130 million years before we detected them.
After that initial burst of gamma-rays, the debris from the explosion continued to glow, fading as it expanded outward. Our Swift, Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer telescopes, along with a number of ground-based observers, were poised to look at this afterglow from the explosion in ultraviolet, optical, X-ray and infrared light. Such coordination between satellites is something that we’ve been doing with our international partners for decades, so we catch events like this one as quickly as possible and in as many wavelengths as possible.
Astronomers have thought that neutron star mergers were the cause of one type of gamma-ray burst - a short gamma-ray burst, like the one they observed on August 17. It wasn’t until we could combine the data from our satellites with the information from LIGO/Virgo that we could confirm this directly.
This event begins a new chapter in astronomy. For centuries, light was the only way we could learn about our universe. Now, we’ve opened up a whole new window into the study of neutron stars and black holes. This means we can see things we could not detect before.
The first LIGO detection was of a pair of merging black holes. Mergers like that may be happening as often as once a month across the universe, but they do not produce much light because there’s little to nothing left around the black hole to emit light. In that case, gravitational waves were the only way to detect the merger.
Image Credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)
The neutron star merger, though, has plenty of material to emit light. By combining different kinds of light with gravitational waves, we are learning how matter behaves in the most extreme environments. We are learning more about how the gravitational wave information fits with what we already know from light - and in the process we’re solving some long-standing mysteries!
God can I just talk about the neutron star collision real quick. It’s just… when I was born there were only like 3 exoplanets. The discovery of GRB Afterglow is less than a month older than I. We hadn’t observed the effects of the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy. We didn’t know what Pluto looked like. We didn’t have the ISS yet.
In twenty years we’ve learned so much. In twenty years we put rovers on Mars. We found water on Mars! Liquid water! We’ve found thousands of exoplanets. We got to see what Pluto looked like with New Horizons. We’ve mapped the stars in the center of our galaxy and we’ve proved that there’s a supermassive black hole there.
But god, the most incredible thing was gravitational waves. In 2015 LIGO recorded the first one, just a small little blip lasting a fraction of a second. But that’s all that was needed. We proved Einstein right nearly 100 years later. And then the one that just came out. I can’t even describe how incredible it is. For over 100 seconds we recorded these waves, massive waves. We were able to triangulate the source.
We saw it. In a moment of planetwide esprit de corps we saw it. We saw the gamma ray burst. We saw the afterglow. Two neutron stars, no bigger than manhattan, colliding at nearly the speed of light some 130 million years ago. And we saw it. We took pictures of it.
And look at all the papers that’ll be coming out of this. Some 3,500 people were involved with this. 3,500 people, from over 70 observatories and detectors all over the world, using hundreds of instruments, made this happen. Yesterday 40 papers were published, along with a flurry of press conferences and jovial announcements.
In a moment, our species graduated from electromagnetic observing to being able to detect ripples in the very fabric of spacetime.
In twenty years, in a cosmic moment, we’ve stretched our legs and are beginning to take our first clumsy footsteps into the universe around us.