Gravitational waves and visible light from a neutron star collision: an incredible day for science

Wow. After two months of excitement and feverish work, we finally revealed yesterday what many in the astronomical community had been speculating about: the simultaneous discovery of gravitational and electromagnetic radiation (light) from the same source. But what maybe no one expected was just how much light. This event, the violent collision of two neutron stars at the end of an 11 billion year death spiral, produced light that spanned the electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays through optical and infrared to radio. Our group detected it all, and each type of light offered a unique probe of different properties associated with the explosive collision.

The gamma-ray burst, 1 second after the gravitational wave, proved that merging neutron star binaries are the source of short GRBs, confirming a decades-old theory. The thermal emission showed the presence of a radioactive ‘kilonova‘ that produced a huge mass of gold, platinum, uranium and more, telling us for the first time exactly where these elements are produced. And the combined detection of two completely different signals – gravitational waves and light – heralds a new kind of ‘multi-messenger’ astrophysics. Moments like this are why we do science.

The links in this post show the diverse research carried out by our group, but in total over 3000 astronomers and physicists around the world contributed to the hunt for this signal and the interpretation of its meaning, described in almost 70 papers. I hope everyone is celebrating!

Spectra of the first ‘kilonova’ from a neutron star collision with a gravitational wave signal. The spectrum is dominated by heavy elements like silver, and the light is powered by radioactive decays.

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