The Expanding Debris Cloud From the Kilonova Tells the Story of What Happens When Neutron Stars Collide

This artist’s conception illustrates the aftermath of a "kilonova," a powerful event that happens when two neutron stars merge. The object is called GW170817 and is the only cosmic event where both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation were detected. Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Northwestern Univ./A. Hajela et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

When two neutron stars collide, it creates a kilonova. The event causes both gravitational waves and emissions of electromagnetic energy. In 2017 the LIGO-Virgo gravitational-wave observatories detected a merger of two neutron stars about 130 million light-years away in the galaxy NGC 4993. The merger is called GW170817, and it remains the only cosmic event observed in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation.

Astronomers have watched the expanding debris cloud from the kilonova for years. A clearer picture of what happens in the aftermath is emerging.

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Astronomers Discover a Mysterious Star That Flashes Every 20 Minutes. But What is it?

A radio map of the Milky Way showing the location of the new transient. Credit: Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker (ICRAR/Curtin) and the GLEAM Team

Just 4,000 light-years from Earth is a strange, star-sized object. It’s been observed by radio telescopes, but astronomers aren’t sure what it is. They call it a long period transient.

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Neutron Stars Have Mountains, They’re Just a Fraction of a Millimeter High

The universe has some very extreme places in it – and there are few places more extreme than the surface of a neutron star.  These ultradense objects form after a supergiant star collapses into a sphere about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in diameter.  Their surface is extreme because of the gravity, which is about a billion times stronger than Earth. However, that gravity also forces the stellar remnant to be extraordinarily flat.  Just how flat is the outcome of a new set of theoretical research by PhD student Fabian Gittins from the University of Southampton. 

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A Nearby White Dwarf Might be About to Collapse Into a Neutron Star

Credit: Giuseppe Parisi

About 97% of all stars in our Universe are destined to end their lives as white dwarf stars, which represents the final stage in their evolution. Like neutron stars, white dwarfs form after stars have exhausted their nuclear fuel and undergo gravitational collapse, shedding their outer layers to become super-compact stellar remnants. This will be the fate of our Sun billions of years from now, which will swell up to become a red giant before losing its outer layers.

Unlike neutron stars, which result from more massive stars, white dwarfs were once about eight times the mass of our Sun or lighter. For scientists, the density and gravitational force of these objects is an opportunity to study the laws of physics under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable. According to new research led by researchers from Caltech, one such object has been found that is both the smallest and most massive white dwarf ever seen.

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A new way to see Inside Neutron Stars

The song of a binary tells us about neutron stars. Credit: University of Bath

Imagine trying to study an object light-years away that is less than 20 kilometers in diameter. The object is so dense that it’s made of material that can’t exist naturally on Earth. This is the challenge astronomers face when studying neutron stars, so they have to devise ingenious ways to do it. Recently a team figured out how to study them by using the power of resonance.

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Astronomers think they’ve seen a magnetar form for the first time; the collision of two neutron stars

Artist view of a kilonova producing a magnetar. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Player (STScI)

A magnetar is a neutron star with a magnetic field thousands of times more powerful than those of typical neutron stars. Their fields are so strong that they can generate powerful, short-duration events such as soft gamma repeaters and fast radio bursts. While we have learned quite a bit about magnetars in recent years, we still don’t understand how neutron stars can form such intense magnetic fields. But that could soon change thanks to a new study.

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Merging Black Holes and Neutron Stars. All the Gravitational Wave Events Seen So Far in One Picture

The mergers of compact objects discovered so far by LIGO and Virgo (in O1, O2 and O3a). The diagram shows black holes (blue), neutron stars (orange) and compact objects of unknown nature (grey), which were detected by their gravitational-wave emission. Each merger of a binary system corresponds to three compact objects shown: the two merging objects and the result of the merger. A selection of black holes (violet) and neutron stars (yellow) discovered by electromagnetic observations is shown for comparison. Image Credit: LIGO Virgo Collaboration / Frank Elavsky, Aaron Geller / Northwestern

The Theory of Relativity predicted the existence of black holes and neutron stars. Einstein gets the credit for the theory because of his paper published in 1915, even though other scientists’ work helped it along. But regardless of the minds behind it, the theory predicted black holes, neutron stars, and the gravitational waves from their mergers.

It took about one hundred years, but scientists finally observed these mergers and their gravitational waves in 2015. Since then, the LIGO/Virgo collaboration has detected many of them. The collaboration has released a new catalogue of discoveries, along with a new infographic. The new infographic displays the black holes, neutron stars, mergers, and the other uncertain compact objects behind some of them.

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New Simulation Shows Exactly What’s Happening as Neutron Stars Merge

gamma-ray burst from neutron star merger
Artist rendering of colliding neutron stars. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

Neutron stars are the remnants of massive stars that explode as supernovae at the end of their fusion lives. They’re super-dense cores where all of the protons and electrons are crushed into neutrons by the overpowering gravity of the dead star. They’re the smallest and densest stellar objects, except for black holes, and possibly other arcane, hypothetical objects like quark stars.

When two neutron stars merge, we can detect the resulting gravitational waves. But some aspects of these mergers are poorly-understood. One question surrounds short-lived gamma-ray bursts from these mergers. Previous studies have shown that these bursts may come from the decay of heavy elements produced in a neutron star merger.

A new study strengthens our understanding of these complex mergers and introduces a model that explains the gamma rays.

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