Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time

NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."

A BREAKTHROUGH ON SEVERAL FRONTS

The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.

"EXACTLY WHAT WE'D HOPE TO SEE"

When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)

A NEW ERA OF ASTROPHYSICS

When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

Buy it: $20 for four (50 percent off)

2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

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These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Look Up! June’s Strawberry Moon Will Light Up Skies Friday Night

Nathaniel Taylor/iStock via Getty Images
Nathaniel Taylor/iStock via Getty Images

If you're looking for an outdoor activity to ring in the summer months, look up at the sky this Friday. As USA Today reports, a strawberry moon—a.k.a. June's full moon—will reach peak visibility the afternoon of June 5 and light up skies throughout the night. Here's everything you need to know to catch the celestial event.

Why Is It Called a Strawberry Moon?

Each month's full moon has a special name that's tied to the time of year when it appears. June is the start of strawberry-picking season in parts of North America, which has earned it the sweet nickname among some Native American tribes. June's full moon is also known as the honey moon or the full rose moon in Europe.

Some years the strawberry moon marks the first full moon of summer, but the summer solstice will still be a couple of weeks off when this one shows up. In some parts of the country, warmer weather has already arrived, which makes the strawberry moon a great excuse to kick off your summer sky-gazing season early.

When to Watch the Strawberry Moon

In 2020, the strawberry moon will reach its fullest state at 3:12 p.m. EDT on Friday, June 5. If you're in North America, the moon won't be visible until later in the evening, but it will still look full and bright even after it's passed its peak. At moonrise, which occurs roughly around 8:30 p.m. along the East Coast tonight, the moon will emerge in the east and continue to hug the horizon as it moves through the night sky.

The strawberry moon isn't pink as its name suggests, but it is the most colorful moon of the lunar calendar. Because it never rises too far above the horizon, its light gets filtered by more of the atmosphere, making it look orange or yellow from your backyard.

[h/t USA Today]