An astonishing collision 130 million light years away may have unveiled the secret origin of heavy metals such as gold, and is set to usher in a new chapter in astrophysics, according to experts.
For the first time, NASA scientists have observed two neutron stars colliding into each other in the galaxy NGC 4993.
The two neutron stars danced toward each other hundreds of times in a second, sending gravitational waves, known as GW170817. As the two collided and merged, they released light in the form of a gamma-ray burst. The kilonova also produced huge amounts of elements such as gold, platinum, and lead.
The waves of the collision, which occurred an incredible 130 million light years away, have only recently reached Earth on Aug. 17, shortly after 8:41 a.m. The unprecedented phenomenon was detected by utilizing more than 70 different laboratories and telescopes around the globe.
“This is an amazing, amazing discovery,” said David Reitze, executive director of LIGO Laboratory/Caltech, in a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, according to a NASA statement.
“Now, for the first time, we’ve seen light and gravitational waves produced by the same event,” he added.
This exciting discovery sheds light onto gravitational waves, and solves three long-standing mysteries that have been baffling astronomers for decades.
“This discovery has answered three questions that astronomers have been puzzling for decades: what happens when neutron stars merge? What causes the short duration gamma-ray bursts? Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made?” said Dr. Samantha Oates from the University of Warwick, according to the Independent.
“Our discovery confirms a lot of our theoretical predictions, including that double neutron stars give rise to gamma rays, optical, infrared, X-rays and radio waves,” said Vicky Kalogera of Northwestern University, and leading astrophysicist in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), Express reported.
Dr. Joe Lyman from the University of Warwick said: “This tells us that the heavy elements, like the gold or platinum in jewelry, are the cinders forged in the billion degree remnants of a merging neutron star.”
Additionally, the discovery also opens the door to a new era of astrophysics and transforms scientists’ understanding of the universe. For instance, using the data, scientists can measure the rate at which the universe is expanding.
“It’s transformational,” Julie McEnery, astrophysicist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the Washington Post. “The era of gravitational wave astrophysics had dawned, but now it’s come of age.… We’re able to combine dramatically different ways of viewing the universe, and I think our level of understanding is going to leap forward as a result.”
“We can now fill in a few more tiles in the jigsaw puzzle that is the story of our universe,” said Laura Cadonati, a professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and deputy spokeswoman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, as stated in a CNN report.