Science 10 min read

Astrophysicists Discover Gravitational Waves From a Kilonova

Artist illustration of the merger of two neutron stars. | NASA | Goddard Space Flight Center | Dana Berry

Artist illustration of the merger of two neutron stars. | NASA | Goddard Space Flight Center | Dana Berry

Ripples in the fabric of space and time have been observed once again; this time, researchers found the gravitational waves from two neutron stars millions of light-years away.

Another astrophysics breakthrough was reported when LIGO scientists spotted the gravitational waves from two neutron stars colliding with each other in a neighboring galaxy. This previously undiscovered phenomenon is referred to as a ‘kilonova’, and it took astrophysicists in labs and observatories all over the world simultaneously scouring the sky to pinpoint.

Of course, the actual collision took place 130 million years ago.

It should be noted that it was just a couple of weeks ago when The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 (read more here) to the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project for their contribution to the discovery of gravitational waves.

This latest event is considered another first since researchers aimed their powerful telescopes to the vast cosmos in search of space and time ripples that the famous Albert Einstein described in his theory of relativity over a century ago.

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Hanford Washington that detected the gravitational waves from neutron stars colliding
Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford Washington | LIGO |
#LIGO found gravitational waves caused by neutron stars colliding! #AstronomyClick To Tweet

The Search for Truth Behind Einstein’s Theory

Gravitational waves are described as ripples in the curvature of spacetime. They are known to be generated in specific gravitational interactions and propagate as waves outward at the speed of light from the celestial bodies producing them.

In 1915, Einstein theorized the existence of gravitational waves via his General Theory of Relativity (GTR). Einstein’s geometric theory suggests that the force of gravity comes to exist due to the curvature of space and time.

Albert Einstein |
Albert Einstein |

Einstein proposed that cosmic bodies like the Sun and our planet Earth could change this geometry citing that in the presence of matter and energy, it can evolve, stretch, warp, form ridges, mountains, and valleys, which cause the bodies moving through it to zigzag and curve.

For decades, astrophysicists scoured the vastness of the sky looking for any sign that gravitational waves do exist. Many failed, fruitless efforts made many researchers dump Einstein’s claims as false.

However, things changed when LIGO project scientists in 2015 got a first glimpse of what appeared to be gravitation waves being emitted by two merging black holes. The three scientists, Rainer Weiss of MIT, and Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne from Caltech eventually won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 for this discovery.

First observation of gravitational waves from two black holes
First observation of gravitational waves from two black holes | Wikipedia |

Gravitational Waves from Two Neutron Stars: Another Proof of Einstein’s Theory

Following the discovery of the gravitational waves in 2015, three more were discovered, all of which were also from colliding black holes.

However, on Monday, October 16th, the team announced to the world the discovery of gravitational waves from two neutron stars that were found to have collided with each other, dubbed as GW170817. The fifth gravitational wave was detected on August 17th of this year using LIGO’s two detectors that are located in Louisiana and Washington state.

Collision of two neutron stars that produced gravitation waves
Collision of two neutron stars that produced gravitation waves | 1M2H Collaboration/UC Santa Cruz/Carnegie Observatories

The waves which lasted for about 100 seconds were picked up by the LIGO detectors and was considered to be longer than the fraction-of-a-second ‘chirps’ usually spawned by colliding black holes.

David Shoemaker, a spokesman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said in a statement:

“It immediately appeared to us the source was likely to be neutron stars, the other coveted source we were hoping to see — and promising the world we would see.” 

Neutron stars which are collapsed remnants of massive stars that died in supernova explosions are considered as rare universal objects. These stars pack their mass inside a 20-kilometer diameter. They are said to be so dense that a single teaspoon would weigh a billion tons.

Tony Piro, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California said in a statement:

“They are as close as you can get to a black hole without actually being a black hole. Just one teaspoon of a neutron star weighs as much as all the people on Earth combined.”

On average, a neutron star’s gravity is reported to be 2 billion times stronger than the gravity of planet Earth. It’s so strong that experts believe it could significantly bend radiation from the star in a process known as gravitational lensing.

LIGO team’s calculations suggest that the two celestial bodies have approximately between 1.1 and 1.6 times the mass of our Sun, putting them under the category of neutron stars.

Many experts deemed the discovery as a dramatic demonstration of how modern day technology and humanity’s newfound ability to detect gravitational waves is transforming astrophysics.

Peter Saulson of Syracuse University who spent over three decades of his life working on the detection of gravitation waves was quoted as saying:

“It’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry. It’s the fulfillment of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people’s efforts, but it’s also the fulfillment of an idea suddenly becoming real.”

Detection of Gravitational Waves from Neutron Stars: A Global Team Effort

Two seconds after the said gravitation waves from two neutron stars were detected, a nearby orbiting NASA telescope, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, was reported to have registered an extremely powerful stream of radiation called a gamma-ray burst. Apparently, it came from the same region of the sky that produced the gravitational waves.

Shoemaker said:

“A phone alarm went off in my pocket. The morning was transformed from ordinary bureaucracy to a morning of slightly breathless discovery as we tried to figure out how we could most quickly get the news out to observers to try and make the most of this event.”

Shortly after the discovery of the GW170817, the LIGO team immediately consulted with their fellow astrophysicists at Virgo Observatory, another gravitational wave detector near Pisa, Italy. Surprisingly, Virgo also detected the waves, and together with their data, the location in the sky where the waves came from was successfully determined.

Virgo Observatory near Pisa, Italy
Virgo Observatory near Pisa, Italy. | Virgo |

The origin of the said gravitational waves from two neutron stars was in the southern skies, giving the first opportunity to work on the discovery to the astronomers in Chile. Benjamin Shappee, a professor at the University of Hawaii who was in Chile when the event happened said:

“I actually woke up in the afternoon, because I work all night when I’m observing, and I just looked at my phone and I saw it was just covered with emails about a new source that was discovered by LIGO. My first thought was just, ‘We’re in the perfect position to try to find this.'”

How the collision looked like to astronomers
Cowperthwaite/ Berger of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics |

Shappee and his colleagues immediately began searching for the right galaxy to aim their telescopes on. As soon as darkness filled the sky, they started looking for any new source of light among the familiar stars. A few minutes into the task, Shappee received an email stating that the Swope Telescope might have found something.

“Almost right off the bat, maybe 15 minutes into observing, I get an email basically saying that they think they found something from the Swope, which is amazing,” Shappee said. “And then I get an email almost immediately from Josh Simon, also saying he was on the same galaxy, took another image and found the same source, and it’s real. And so at that point, I said, ‘This is almost too easy.'”

A matching optical light was spotted by the Swope 130 million light-years away from Earth.

“We saw a bright-blue source of light in a nearby galaxy — the first time the glowing debris from a neutron star merger had ever been observed,” Josh Simon, a team member of the Carnegie Observatories went on to say. “It was definitely a thrilling moment.”

An hour later, researchers using the Gemini South Telescope from Chile as well, reported that they spotted the same source in infrared light. Soon, other teams studied the same source using a variety of instruments across the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from radio to X-ray wavelengths.

Gemini Telescope
Gemini Telescope | Gemini Observatory |

Edo Berger, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that they also scanned the region of the sky where LIGO told them the gravitational waves came from. The team took 45 minutes to find them.

“It was an incredibly amazing moment, because it just stood out there. It was kind of like searching for treasure and then seeing X marks the spot,” Berger said.

The discovery of these gravitational waves from two neutron stars that have collided consumed the astronomical community for weeks. David Reitze, a physicist at Caltech and also the executive director of the LIGO project said that by count, 70 astronomical telescopes who looked for the event in the area of the sky where they spotted the gravitational waves from two neutron stars. He said:

“This event, in some sense, is the first event that we’ve seen in gravitational waves and in light. It’s a new way to look at the universe.”

This breakthrough in astrophysics was said to have uncovered some significant scientific insights. For instance, the discovery of the gravitational waves from two neutron stars merging together after collision suggests that the waves do move at the speed of light as what the theory predicts. Also, it gave astronomers the opportunity to know a little more about neutron stars.

Limitless Energy and Space-time Prison, an Edgy Labs Prediction

What about microgravity waves?

Assuming that our current gravitational wave detection equipment is geared toward finding evidence from distant collisions and not ambient, local waves, when will we discover the smaller ripples in space-time that are almost assuredly surrounding us?

As we started digesting this discovery and considering its implications, our boss asked us this question:

On 10/16/2017, at 6:57 AM, Alexander De Ridder wrote:

“Are we making the point that every form of energy manipulation ever discovered has always been leveraged for creating engines?”

To make that point, consider Otto Hahn’s discovery of nuclear fission of heavy elements in 1938. Afterward, humans began using neutrons of heavy elements to harness the energy created by these powerful nuclear transmutations.

So then, could we potentially harvest microgravity waves and convert them into energy? What’s more, could we create enough energy to build a gravitational wave engine? Whether for propulsion or energy conversion, the sheer potential of these phenomena make our future-tech mouths water.

Also, gravitational waves affect space-time.

superman 2
Superman 2

If we did harvest these waves, we may also potentially learn how to affect space-time. Think space prison or gravitational teleporter–no matter which way you look at it this discovering breaks the field of astrophysics wide open. Now we just have to wait until someone really starts making waves.

It’s a new era in astrophysics. With such a large-scale collaboration in this discovery, what’s the next step for scientists looking to test every detail of Einstein’s theory of general relativity?

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Rechelle is the current Managing Editor of Edgy. She's an experienced SEO content writer, researcher, social media manager, and visual artist. She enjoys traveling and spending time anywhere near the sea with her family and friends.

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