News Release

LIGO Observes Neutron Star Collision


Cataclysmic Collision Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle, Spiral Dance of Black Holes

NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
Credit and Larger Version

October 16, 2017

First event to be detected in both gravitational waves and light 

In an astronomical first, a cosmic cataclysm—the collision of two neutron stars—has been detected in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves.  The collision was first detected by LIGO in gravitational waves and as a gamma-ray burst (GRB)—the brightest electromagnetic events seen in the universe—by NASA’s Fermi telescope. Data from Virgo, the European gravitational wave observatory, were instrumental in confirming that the GRB observed by Fermi and the signal detected by LIGO originated with the same event—direct observational confirmation that the merging of two neutron stars produces a GRB. 

The afterglow of the enormously energetic event was detected across the electromagnetic spectrum —in radio, infrared, optical, and ultraviolet light—using an international fleet of ground and space observatories, yielding another remarkable result.  Spectroscopic data from the U.S. Gemini Observatory and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) revealed the signatures of heavy elements, including gold and platinum, directly confirming their creation in the massive explosion.  Cosmic events of this type are one of the few mechanisms through which elements heavier than iron—and on which modern human civilization now depends—are produced and seeded throughout the universe.

“This observation of a neutron star merger is a triumphant confirmation of our theories on the nature of gamma-ray bursts and the origin of heavy elements, and it ushers in a new era of multi-messenger astrophysics,” said Dr. Maria Zuber, Chair of the National Science Board and Vice President for Research at MIT.  “It is astonishing to have achieved this result so soon after Advanced LIGO and Virgo began scientific observations.  As if confirming a major prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity was not enough, this demonstrates how LIGO and Virgo are also already revolutionizing stellar astronomy and nucleosynthesis.  These gravitational wave observations are truly providing us with a new window on the universe.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) began supporting early studies of LIGO in 1975, and the project formally came to the National Science Board in 1984.  These breathtaking discoveries made with LIGO speak to why scientists—and all of humanity—should continue to dream big, to continue exploring, and to imagine what might be possible.

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Nadine Lymn, National Science Board, (703) 292-2490nlymn@nsf.gov

 

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