A Neutron Star Merged with a Surprisingly Light Black Hole

Artwork of a neutron star–black hole merger. Credit: Carl Knox, OzGrav-Swinburne University.

Galactic collisions, meteor impacts and even stellar mergers are not uncommon events. neutron stars colliding with black holes however are a little more rare, in fact, until now, we have never observed one. The fourth LIGO-Virgo-KAGRA observing detected gravitational waves from a collision between a black hole and neutron star 650 million light years away. The black hole was tiny though with a mass between 2.5 to 4.5 times that of the Sun. 

Continue reading “A Neutron Star Merged with a Surprisingly Light Black Hole”

Gravitational Waves Could Show us the First Minute of the Universe

Primordial Gravitational Waves
Primordial Gravitational Waves

Astronomers routinely explore the universe using different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum from the familiar visible light to radio waves and infra-red to gamma rays. There is a problem with studying the Universe through the electromagnetic spectrum, we can only see light from a time when the Universe was only 380,000 years old. An alternate approach is to use gravitational waves which are thought to have been present in the early Universe and may allow us to probe back even further. 

Continue reading “Gravitational Waves Could Show us the First Minute of the Universe”

A Black Hole Switched On in the Blink of an Eye

This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. This thin disc of rotating material consists of the leftovers of a Sun-like star which was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. Shocks in the colliding debris as well as heat generated in accretion led to a burst of light, resembling a supernova explosion. Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

In 2019, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Samantha Oates of the University of Birmingham discovered one of the most powerful transients ever seen – where astronomical objects change their brightness over a short period. Oates and her colleagues found this object, known as J221951-484240 (or J221951), using the Ultra-Violet and Optical Telescope (UVOT) on NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory while searching for the source of a gravitational wave (GW) that was thought to be caused by two massive objects merging in our galaxy.

Multiple follow-up observations were made using the UVOT and Swift’s other instruments – the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) and X-Ray Telescope (XRT), the Hubble Space Telescope, the South African Large Telescope (SALT), the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), and more. The combined observations and spectra revealed that the source was a supermassive black hole (SMBH) in a distant galaxy that mysteriously “switched on,” becoming one of the most dramatic bursts of brightness ever seen with a black hole.

Continue reading “A Black Hole Switched On in the Blink of an Eye”