In 2017 Neutron Stars Collide in Ancient Times: Create a Spark

An illustration of two neutron stars merging, ejecting gamma ray streams and clouds of matter that produce heavy elements and light (National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

Scientists Spot the Spark From Ancient Collision of Neutron Stars

by Ben Panko Smithsonian.Com

A global team of astronomers has detected the bright spark of two neutron stars colliding, shedding light on the previously unknown origins of some of the universe’s heavy elements.

On August 17, scientists operating the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected another round of gravitational waves. Researchers have seen such ripples four times before, but this latest sighting differed from the rest: Astronomers not only heard the “chirp” of the ancient collision, they saw a flash of light.

“Imagine that gravitational waves are like thunder. We’ve heard this thunder before, but this is the first time we’ve also been able to see the lightning that goes with it,” Philip Cowperthwaite, researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian center for Astrophysics, says in a press release.

Predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, and first spotted by scientists in 2015, these distortions in the fabric of space-time come from the violent movements or collisions of celestial objects. But scientists haven’t yet been able to identify the objects causing these distortions. In September, researchers announced that they were narrowing in on the source of the waves using triangulation between two LIGO observatories in the U.S. and the European Virgo observatory.

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