Colliding Neutron Stars are the Ultimate Particle Accelerators

This artist’s impression shows two tiny but very dense neutron stars at the point at which they merge and explode as a kilonova. Such a very rare event is expected to produce both gravitational waves and a short gamma-ray burst, both of which were observed on 17 August 2017 by LIGO–Virgo and Fermi/INTEGRAL respectively. Subsequent detailed observations with many ESO telescopes confirmed that this object, seen in the galaxy NGC 4993 about 130 million light-years from the Earth, is indeed a kilonova. Such objects are the main source of very heavy chemical elements, such as gold and platinum, in the Universe.

Gamma-ray telescopes observing neutron star collisions might be the key to identifying the composition of dark matter. One leading theory explaining dark matter it that is mostly made from hypothetical particles called axions. If an axion is created within the intensely energetic environment of two neutron stars merging, it should then decay into gamma-ray photons which we could see using space telescopes like Fermi-LAT.

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Watch 14 Years of Gamma-Ray Observations in This Fascinating NASA Video

Still from the video showing 14 years of data gathered by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Credit: NASA Goddard

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, named in honor of noted physicist Enrico Fermi, has been in operation for almost a decade and a half, monitoring the cosmos for gamma rays. As the highest-energy form of light, these rays are produced by extremely energetic phenomena – like supernovae, neutron stars, quasars, and gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). In honor of this observatory’s long history, NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center has released a time-lapse movie that shows data acquired by the Fermi Space Telescope between August 2008 and August 2022.

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Fermi has Found More than 300 Gamma-Ray Pulsars

Visualization of a fast-rotating pulsar. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

In June 2008, the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope began surveying the cosmos to study some of the most energetic phenomena in the Universe. Shortly after that, NASA renamed the observatory in the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in honor of Professor Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), a pioneer in high-energy physics. During its mission, Fermi has addressed questions regarding some of the most mysterious and energetic phenomena in the Universe – like gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), cosmic rays, and extremely dense stellar remnants like pulsars.

Since it began operations, Fermi has discovered more than 300 gamma-ray pulsars, which have provided new insights into the life cycle of stars, our galaxy, and the nature of the Universe. This week, a new catalog compiled by an international team contains the more than 300 pulsars discovered by the Fermi mission – which includes 294 confirmed gamma-ray-emitting pulsars and another 34 candidates awaiting confirmation. This is 27 times the number of pulsars known to astronomers before the Fermi mission launched in 2008.

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Brightest Gamma-ray Burst Shines Light on Milky Way Structure

GRB Burst
XMM Newton's view of the remnant of the record-setting gamma-ray burst 221009A. ESA

The brightest gamma-ray burst ever seen in 2022 still puzzles astronomers.

The more researchers look at a recent record-setting event, the stranger it gets.

The story begins on the evening of October 9th, 2022, when NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift orbiting observatory detected a strong X-ray outburst. The source was in the direction of the constellation of Sagitta the Arrow along the galactic plane, suggesting a source in our own Milky Way galaxy. Follow-up observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and the Earth-based European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope however, soon revealed that the source was much more distant, emanating from a gamma-ray burst lying beyond our galaxy. This outburst only appeared to have happened along our line of sight as seen through the plane own galaxy from our Earthbound perspective.

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The Universe Sparkles in Gamma Rays in this New NASA Animation

Cosmic fireworks, invisible to our eyes, fill the night sky. We can get a glimpse of this elusive light show thanks to the Large Area Telescope (LAT) aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which observes the sky in gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light. Image Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Daniel Kocevski

We’ve come a long way since gamma rays were discovered.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great scientific advancements. Scientists were just getting a handle on the different types of radiation. Radium featured prominently in the experiments, including one by French scientist Paul Ulrich Villard in 1900.

Radium decays readily, and scientists had already identified alpha and beta radiation coming from radium samples. But Villard was able to identify a third type of penetrating radiation so powerful even a layer of lead couldn’t stop it: gamma rays.

Now we have a gamma ray detector in space, and it’s showing us how the Universe sparkles with this powerful energy.

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Jupiter Could Make an Ideal Dark Matter Detector

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill (wikimedia commons)

So, you want to find dark matter, but you don’t know where to look? A giant planet might be exactly the kind of particle detector you need! Luckily, our solar system just happens to have a couple of them available, and the biggest and closest is Jupiter. Researchers Rebecca Leane (Stanford) and Tim Linden (Stockholm) released a paper this week describing how the gas giant just might hold the key to finding the elusive dark matter.

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Halo Around a Pulsar could Explain Why We See Antimatter Coming from Space

Astronomers have been watching a nearby pulsar with a strange halo around it. That pulsar might answer a question that’s puzzled astronomers for some time. The pulsar is named Geminga, and it’s one of the nearest pulsars to Earth, about 800 light years away in the constellation Gemini. Not only is it close to Earth, but Geminga is also very bright in gamma rays.

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Dark Matter Could Be A Source of Gamma Rays Coming from the Center of the Milky Way

A map of gamma ray emissions throughout the Milky Way galaxy, based on observations from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. The inset depicts the Galactic Center Excess – an unexpected, spherical region of gamma ray emissions at the center of our galaxy, of unknown origin. Credit: NASA/T. Linden, U.Chicago

There’s a lot of mysterious goings-on at the center of the Milky Way. The supermassive black hole that resides there is chief among them. But there’s another intriguing puzzle there: an unexpected spherical region of intense gamma ray emissions.

A new study suggests that dark matter could be behind those emissions.

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When it Comes to Gamma Radiation, the Moon is Actually Brighter Than the Sun

NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope captures the hellish glow of gamma rays coming from the Moon. Image Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

The eerie, hellish glow coming from the Moon may seem unreal in this image, since it’s invisible to our eyes. But instruments that detect gamma rays tell us it’s real. More than just a grainy, red picture, it’s a vivid reminder that there’s more going on than meets human eyes.

It’s also a reminder that any humans that visit the Moon need to be protected from this high-energy radiation.

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Kilonova Neutron Star Collision Probably Left Behind a Black Hole

Artist's illustration of two merging neutron stars. The narrow beams represent the gamma-ray burst while the rippling spacetime grid indicates the isotropic gravitational waves that characterize the merger. Swirling clouds of material ejected from the merging stars are a possible source of the light that was seen at lower energies. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

In February of 2016, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. A little over a century after they were first predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, we finally had proof that this phenomenon existed. In August of 2017, another major breakthrough occurred when LIGO detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger.

Shortly thereafter, scientists at LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to determine where in the sky the neutron star merger occurred. While many studies have focused on the by-products of this merger, a new study by researchers from Trinity University, the University of Texas at Austin and Eureka Scientific, has chosen to focus on the remnant, which they claim is likely a black hole.

For the sake of their study, which recently appeared online under the title “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, the team consulted data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to examine what resulted of the supernova merger. This data was obtained during Director’s Discretionary Time observations that were made on December 3rd and 6th, 2017, some 108 days after the merger.

This data showed a light-curve increase in the X-ray band which was compatible to the radio flux increase that was reported by a previous study conducted by the same team. These combined results suggest that radio and X-ray emissions were being produced at the same source, and that the rising light-curve that followed the merger was likely due to an increase in accelerated charged particles in the external shock – the region where an outflow of gas interacts with the interstellar medium.

As they indicate in their study, this could either be explained as the result of a more massive neutron star being formed from the merger, or a black hole:

“The merger of two neutron stars with mass 1.48 ± 0.12 M and 1.26 ± 0.1 M — where the merged object has a mass of 2.74 +0.04-0.01 M… could result in either a neutron star or a black hole. There might also be a debris disk that gets accreted onto the central object over a period of time, and which could be source of keV X-rays.”

The team also ruled out various possibilities of what could account for this rise in X-ray luminosity. Basically, they concluded that the X-ray photons were not coming from a debris disk, which would have been left over from the merger of the two neutron stars. They also deduced that they would not be produced by a relativistic jet spewing from the remnant, since the flux would be much lower after 102 days.


Collisions of neutron stars produce powerful gamma-ray bursts – and heavy elements like gold. Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.

All of this indicated that the remnant was more likely to be a black hole than a hyper-massive neutron star. As they explained:

“We show next that if the merged object were a hyper-massive neutron star endowed with a strong magnetic field, then the X-ray luminosity associated with the dipole radiation would be larger than the observed luminosity 10 days after the event, but much smaller than the observed flux at t ~ 100 days. This argues against the formation of a hyper-massive neutron star in this merger.”

Last, but not least, they considered the X-ray and radio emissions that were present roughly 100 days after the merger. These, they claim, are best explained by continued emissions coming from the merger-induced shock (and the not remnant itself) since these emissions would continue to propagate in the interstellar medium around the remnant. Combined with early X-ray data, this all points towards GW170817 now being a black hole.

The first-ever detection of gravitational waves signaled the dawn of a new era in astronomical research. Since that time, observatories like LIGO, Advanced Virgo, and GEO 600 have also benefited from information-sharing and new studies that have indicated that mergers are more common than previously thought, and that gravity waves could be used to probe the interior of supernovae.

With this latest study, scientists have learned that they are not only able to detect the waves caused by black hole mergers, but even the creation thereof. At the same time, it shows how the study of the Universe is growing. Not only is astronomy advancing to the point where we are able to study more and more of the visible Universe, but the invisible Universe as well.

Further Reading: LIGO, arXiv