We don’t really understand neutron stars. Oh, we know that they are – they’re the leftover remnants of some of the most massive stars in the universe – but revealing their inner workings is a little bit tricky, because the physics keeping them alive is only poorly understood.
But every once in a while two neutron stars smash together, and when they do they tend to blow up, spewing their quantum guts all over space. Depending on the internal structure and composition of the neutron stars, the “ejecta” (the polite scientific term for astronomical projectile vomit) will look different to us Earth-bound observers, giving us a gross but potentially powerful way to understand these exotic creatures.
About a year ago, LIGO’s two facilities were taken offline so its detectors could undergo a series of hardware upgrades. With these upgrades now complete, LIGO recently announced that the observatory will be going back online on April 1st. At that point, its scientists are expecting that its increased sensitivity will allow for “almost daily” detections to take place.
Previously, seven such events had been confirmed, six of which were caused by the mergers of binary black holes (BBH) and one by the merger of a binary neutron star. But on Saturday, Dec. 1st, a team of scientists the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and Virgo Collaboration presented new results that indicated the discovery of four more gravitational wave events. This brings the total number of GW events detected in the last three years to eleven.
Neutron stars scream in waves of spacetime when they die, and astronomers have outlined a plan to use their gravitational agony to trace the history of the universe. Join us as we explore how to turn their pain into our cosmological profit.
This discovery not only opened up an exciting new field of research, but has opened the door to many intriguing possibilities. One such possibility, according to a new study by a team of Russian scientists, is that gravitational waves could be used to transmit information. In much the same way as electromagnetic waves are used to communicate via antennas and satellites, the future of communications could be gravitationally-based.
Exotic dark matter theories. Gravitational waves. Observatories in space. Giant black holes. Colliding galaxies. Lasers. If you’re a fan of all the awesomest stuff in the universe, then this article is for you.
Ever since they were first discovered in the 1930s, scientists have puzzled over the mystery that is neutron stars. These stars, which are the result of a supernova explosion, are the smallest and densest stars in the Universe. While they typically have a radius of about 10 km (6.2 mi) – about 1.437 x 10-5 times that of the Sun – they also average between 1.4 and 2.16 Solar masses.
At this density, which is the same as that of atomic nuclei, a single teaspoon of neutron star material would weigh about as much as 90 million metric tons (100 million US tons). And now, a team of scientists has conducted a study that indicates that the strongest known material in the Universe – what they refer to as “nuclear pasta” – exists deep inside the crust of neutron stars.
In August of 2017, astronomers made another major breakthrough when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the merger of two neutron stars. Since that time, scientists at multiple facilities around the world have conducted follow-up observations to determine the aftermath this merger, as even to test various cosmological theories.
For instance, in the past, some scientists have suggested that the inconsistencies between Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the nature of the Universe over large-scales could be explained by the presence of extra dimensions. However, according to a new study by a team of American astrophysicists, last year’s kilonova event effectively rules out this hypothesis.
In August of 2017, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. This “kilonova” event, known as GW170817, was the first astronomical event to be detected in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves – including visible light, gamma rays, X-rays, and radio waves.
In the months that followed the merger, orbiting and ground-based telescopes around the world have observed GW170817 to see what has resulted from it. According to a new study by an international team of astronomers, the merger produced a narrow jet of material that made its way into interstellar space at velocities approaching the speed of light.
This source, known as GW170817/GRB, has been the target of many follow-up surveys since it was believed that the merge could have led to the formation of a black hole. According to a new study by a team that analyzed data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since the event, scientists can now say with greater confidence that the merger created a new black hole in our galaxy.
The study, titled “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by David Pooley, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy at Trinity University, San Antonio, and included members from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley, and Nazarbayev University’s Energetic Cosmos Laboratory in Kazakhstan.
For the sake of their study, the team analyzed X-ray data from Chandra taken in the days, weeks, and months after the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO and gamma rays by NASA’s Fermi mission. While nearly every telescope in the world had observed the source, X-ray data was critical to understanding what happened after the two neutron stars collided.
While a Chandra observation two to three days after the event failed to detect an X-ray source, subsequent observations taken 9, 15, and 16 days after the event resulted in detections. The source disappeared for a time as GW170817 passed behind the Sun, but additional observations were made about 110 and 160 days after the event, both of which showed significant brightening.
While the LIGO data provided astronomers with a good estimate of the resulting object’s mass after the neutron stars merged (2.7 Solar Masses), this was not enough to determine what it had become. Essentially, this amount of mass meant that it was either the most massive neutron star ever found or the lowest-mass black hole ever found (the previous record holders being four or five Solar Masses). As Dave Pooley explained in a NASA/Chandra press release:
“While neutron stars and black holes are mysterious, we have studied many of them throughout the Universe using telescopes like Chandra. That means we have both data and theories on how we expect such objects to behave in X-rays.”
If the neutron stars merged to form a heavier neutron star, then astronomers would expect it to spin rapidly and generate and very strong magnetic field. This would have also created an expanded bubble of high-energy particles that would result in bright X-ray emissions. However, the Chandra data revealed X-ray emissions that were several hundred times lower than expected from a massive, rapidly-spinning neutron star.
By comparing the Chandra observations with those by the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), Pooley and his team were also able to deduce that the X-ray emission were due entirely to the shock wave caused by the merger smashing into surrounding gas. In short, there was no sign of X-rays resulting from a neutron star.
This strongly implies that the resulting object was in fact a black hole. If confirmed, these results would indicate that the formation process of a blackhole can sometimes be complicated. Essentially, GW170817 would have been the result of two stars undergoing a supernova explosion that left behind two neutron stars in a sufficiently tight orbit that they eventually came together. As Pawan Kumar explained:
“We may have answered one of the most basic questions about this dazzling event: what did it make? Astronomers have long suspected that neutron star mergers would form a black hole and produce bursts of radiation, but we lacked a strong case for it until now.”
Looking ahead, the claims put forward by Pooley and his colleagues could be tested by future X-ray and radio observations. Next-generation instruments – like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) currently under construction in South Africa and Australia, and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (Athena+) – would be especially helpful in this regard.
If the remnant turns out to be a massive neutron star with a strong magnetic field after all, then the source should get much brighter in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the coming years as the high-energy bubble catches up with the decelerating shock wave. As the shock wave weakens, astronomers expect that it will continue to become fainter than it was when recently observed.
Regardless, future observations of GW170817 are bound to provide a wealth of information, according to J. Craig Wheeler, a co-author on the study also from the University of Texas. “GW170817 is the astronomical event that keeps on giving,” he said. “We are learning so much about the astrophysics of the densest known objects from this one event.”
If these follow-up observations find that a heavy neutron star is what resulted from the merger, this discovery would challenge theories about the structure of neutron stars and how massive they can get. On the other hand, if they find that it formed a tiny black hole, then it will challenge astronomers notions about the lower mass limits of black holes. For astrophysicists, it’s basically a win-win scenario.
As co-author Bruce Grossan of the University of California at Berkeley added:
“At the beginning of my career, astronomers could only observe neutron stars and black holes in our own galaxy, and now we are observing these exotic stars across the cosmos. What an exciting time to be alive, to see instruments like LIGO and Chandra showing us so many thrilling things nature has to offer.”
Indeed, looking farther out into the cosmos and deeper back in time has revealed much about the Universe that was previously unknown. And with improved instruments being developed for the sole purpose of studying astronomical phenomena in greater detail and at even greater distances, there seems to be no limit to what we might learn. And be sure to check out this video of the GW170817 merger, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory: