For the first time, astronomers saw a black hole swallow a neutron star, the closest object in the universe, in a split second.
Ten days later, they saw the same thing on the other side of the universe. In both cases, a neutron star – a teaspoon of it would weigh a billion tons – orbits closer and closer to this ultimate point of no return, a black hole, until the star is suddenly devoured.
Astronomers observed the last 500 orbits before the neutron stars swallowed more than a billion light years away. The process currently generated as much energy as all of the visible light in the observable universe.
Scientists had previously observed neutron stars colliding and black holes merging, but they had never documented neutron stars – dead stars – being sucked into black holes « That was the missing link, » says Philippe Landry, researcher at Cal State Fullerton Center for Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy. « It’s something we suspected happened but had never seen it before. »
Landry and Jocelyn Read, a CSUF special professor in physics, were among the 1,000+ scientists working on teams around the world worked on the project that led to the discovery. The waves were spotted in January 2020, but the study that analyzes and interprets the data was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on Tuesday.
« The collaborations are definitely a large group, » Read said. “We publish together and each contributor has special expertise. Since the employees are spread all over the world, we work through a lot of e-mails and telephone conferences. ”
The bursts of energy from the collisions were discovered when detectors on Earth, so-called interferometers, detected the gravitational waves of the mergers, cosmic waves that floated through space and time, as first theorized by Albert Einstein.
Neutron stars are corpses of massive stars, the remains after the death of a large star in a supernova explosion. They are so dense that they are one and a half to two times the mass of our Sun, but condense to a width of about 6 miles, according to study co-author Patrick Brady of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Some black holes, known as stellar black holes, are created when an even larger star collapses and creates something with so strong gravity that even light cannot escape.
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Cal State Fullerton has established itself as a major player in this research since 2012 with the establishment of its Center for Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy. In 2015, researchers from the center took part in the groundbreaking project that documented the existence of gravitational waves for the first time and confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity with its prediction of the existence of such waves.
« I’m really proud of everything we could contribute, » said Read. « I think we are having a huge impact on the development of this new field of astronomy. »
Landry said the latest discovery improves our understanding of the history and nature of the universe – including our own planet.
» All of the matter that makes up the earth comes from stars, ”he said. “The rare items like gold and platinum only exist because of the collisions of dead stars, neutron stars. In this way you can draw a line between all matter on earth and the life and death of stars. ”
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