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First cosmic event observed in both gravitational waves and light



Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser

For the first time, scientists have directly detected gravitational waves — ripples in spacetime — 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 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.

The LIGO-Virgo results are published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; additional papers from the LIGO and Virgo collaborations and the astronomical community have been either submitted or accepted for publication in various journals.

“It is tremendously exciting to experience a rare event that transforms our understanding of the workings of the universe,” says France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds LIGO. “This discovery realizes a long-standing goal many of us have had, that is, to simultaneously observe rare cosmic events using both traditional as well as gravitational-wave observatories. 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.”


The gravitational signal, named GW170817, was first detected on Aug. 17 at 8:41 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time; the detection was made by the two identical LIGO detectors, located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The information provided by the third detector, Virgo, situated near Pisa, Italy, enabled an improvement in localizing the cosmic event. At the time, LIGO was nearing the end of its second observing run since being upgraded in a program called Advanced LIGO, while Virgo had begun its first run after recently completing an upgrade known as Advanced Virgo.

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