As we posted Monday, it has certainly been a busy season for the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart, Virgo. Yesterday’s announcement of a neutron star merger is especially exciting because it’s the first detection made with gravitational waves that could also be viewed using optical telescopes. Within just a few hours of the initial gravitational wave detection and the gamma ray burst that arrived 1.5 seconds later, telescopes all over the world began to focus their gaze on the same region of the sky, catching a multispectral “kilonova” in action. “It was this extraordinary 2-to-3 day period,” said Aidan Brooks, staff scientist at the California Institute of Technology working on LIGO. “Everybody was completely elated and we just had this sort of amazing science flow in immediately after making this detection.”
For Anna Frebel, Associate Professor of Physics at MIT, this neutron star merger corroborates her work on the formation of heavy elements, which were once thought to form primarily in supernovae. When two neutron stars collide, “there’s a lot of element formation going on, which means there’s a lot of decaying going on in the process of creating stable elements,” she noted. “That extra light can actually be observed—this is exactly what has been observed—and this is absolutely amazing because for the first time we have the opportunity to actually see, basically with our own eyes (and aided by telescopes), we can see element production happening.”
All three detectors are undergoing upgrades at the moment, but when they are turned back on for the next observing run next year, they’re expected to find a myriad of other extreme astronomical events. Armed with this population of black hole mergers, supernovae, colliding neutron stars—and, well, maybe something else we’re not expecting—astronomers will be busy unlocking new secrets of the universe for a long time to come.