Gravity has been making waves - literally. Earlier this month, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the first direct detection of gravitational waves two years ago. But astronomers just announced another huge advance in the field of gravitational waves - for the first time, we’ve observed light and gravitational waves from the same source.
There was a pair of orbiting neutron stars in a galaxy (called NGC 4993). Neutron stars are the crushed leftover cores of massive stars (stars more than 8 times the mass of our sun) that long ago exploded as supernovas. There are many such pairs of binaries in this galaxy, and in all the galaxies we can see, but something special was about to happen to this particular pair.
Each time these neutron stars orbited, they would lose a teeny bit of gravitational energy togravitational waves. Gravitational waves are disturbances in space-time - the very fabric of the universe - that travel at the speed of light. The waves are emitted by any mass that is changing speed or direction, like this pair of orbiting neutron stars. However, the gravitational waves are very faint unless the neutron stars are very close and orbiting around each other very fast.
As luck would have it, the teeny energy loss caused the two neutron stars to get a teeny bit closer to each other and orbit a teeny bit faster. After hundreds of millions of years, all those teeny bits added up, and the neutron stars were *very* close. So close that … BOOM! … they collided. And we witnessed it on Earth on August 17, 2017.
Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
A couple of very cool things happened in that collision - and we expect they happen in all such neutron star collisions. Just before the neutron stars collided, the gravitational waves were strong enough and at just the right frequency that the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and European Gravitational Observatory’s Virgo could detect them. Just after the collision, those waves quickly faded out because there are no longer two things orbiting around each other!
LIGO is a ground-based detector waiting for gravitational waves to pass through its facilities on Earth. When it is active, it can detect them from almost anywhere in space.
The other thing that happened was what we call a gamma-ray burst. When they get very close, the neutron stars break apart and create a spectacular, but short, explosion. For a couple of seconds, our Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope saw gamma-rays from that explosion. Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor is one of our eyes on the sky, looking out for such bursts of gamma-rays that scientists want to catch as soon as they’re happening.
And those gamma-rays came just 1.7 seconds after the gravitational wave signal. The galaxy this occurred in is 130 million light-years away, so the light and gravitational waves were traveling for 130 million years before we detected them.