LIGO and Virgo Make First Detection of Gravitational Waves Produced by Colliding Neutron StarsSolving a 50-year Old Mystery of the Origin of Gamma-ray BurstsCUHK the Only Institution in Hong Kong Involved in the Project
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration (Virgo) announce the detection of gravitational waves and 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. A paper about the event, known as GW170817, has been accepted for publication on October 16, 2017 at 22:00 (HKT) in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The discovery was made using the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the Europe-based Virgo detector, and some 70 ground-based and space-based 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 synthesised material, including gold and platinum, solving a 50-year old mystery of where about half of all elements heavier than iron are produced.
Prof. Tjonnie G. F. LI, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), is leading the only group in Hong Kong involved with the work of LIGO. Prof. LI said, “To catch such a rare cosmic event using so many different instruments is something extraordinary. It is a real testimony to the close relationship that the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration has built with the astronomy community, which has enabled efficient information sharing and response. I am proud of my team and their involvement in the detection effort and the investigation of fundamental physics using this discovery, including the theory of general relativity and the behaviour of ultra-dense matter. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen such a spectacular example of multi-messenger astronomy.”
Prof. Li remarked, “This event also highlights the importance of teamwork amongst astronomers. We have had our own discussions with local astronomers to combine the strengths of different astronomy groups towards a common purpose. This event has highlighted a promising direction. I hope this event will re-invigorate the appetite for astronomy and science in general.”
A Stellar Sign
The gravitational signal was first detected on August 17 at 8:41 a.m. (EDT); 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.
On August 17, LIGO’s real-time data analysis software caught a strong signal of gravitational waves from space in one of the two LIGO detectors. At nearly the same time, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor on NASA’s Fermi space telescope had detected a burst of gamma rays. LIGO-Virgo analysis software put the two signals together and saw it was highly unlikely to be a chance coincidence, and another automated LIGO analysis indicated that there was a coincident gravitational wave signal in the other LIGO detector. Rapid gravitational-wave detection by the LIGO-Virgo team, coupled with Fermi’s gamma-ray detection, enabled the launch of follow-up by telescopes around the world.
The LIGO data indicated that two astrophysical objects located at the relatively close distance of about 130 million light-years from Earth had been spiraling in toward each other. It appeared that the objects were not as massive as binary black holes — objects that LIGO and Virgo have previously detected. Instead, the inspiraling objects were estimated to be in a range from around 1.1 to 1.6 times the mass of the sun, in the mass range of neutron stars. A neutron star is about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, in diameter and is so dense that a teaspoon of neutron star material has a mass of about a billion tons.
Theorists have predicted that when neutron stars collide, they should give off gravitational waves and gamma rays, along with powerful jets that emit light across the electromagnetic spectrum. The gamma-ray burst detected by Fermi, and soon thereafter confirmed by the European Space Agency’s gamma-ray observatory INTEGRAL, is what is called a short gamma-ray burst; the new observations confirm that at least some short gamma-ray bursts are generated by the merging of neutron stars — something that was only theorized before.
At the moment of collision, the bulk of the two neutron stars merged into one ultra-dense object, emitting a “fireball” of gamma rays. The initial gamma-ray measurements, combined with the gravitational-wave detection, also provide confirmation for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that gravitational waves should travel at the speed of light.
Theorists have predicted that what follows the initial fireball is a “kilonova” — a phenomenon by which the material that is left over from the neutron star collision, which glows with light, is blown out of the immediate region and far out into space. The new light-based observations show that heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created in these collisions and subsequently distributed throughout the universe.
In the weeks and months ahead, telescopes around the world will continue to observe the afterglow of the neutron star merger and gather further evidence about various stages of the merger, its interaction with its surroundings, and the processes that produce the heaviest elements in the universe.
LIGO is funded by the NSF, and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project.
More than 1,200 scientists and some 100 institutions from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian collaboration OzGrav. Additional partners are listed at http://ligo.org/partners.php
The Virgo collaboration consists of more than 280 physicists and engineers belonging to 20 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the University of Valencia; and the European Gravitational Observatory, EGO, the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, funded by CNRS, INFN, and Nikhef.