(ANTIMEDIA) — Imagine a collapsed star core the size of a city but with the mass of our sun. One teaspoon weighs as much as a mountain. Now imagine two of them hurtling toward each other at a third of the speed of light. When they collide, a rare cosmic phenomenon, the ensuing explosion generates a radioactive field of debris the size of our solar system, filled with an almost incomprehensible amount of heavy elements, including blazing hot pure gold and platinum.
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A collision of two ultra-dense neutron stars also casts off gravitational waves, which Einstein predicted. Until earlier this year, however, this process had never been directly detected. In fact, scientists had never witnessed a neutron star explosion, something that LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) astronomers at CalTech spent decades preparing for even while admitting that their chances of observing one were 80,000 to one. Then, in August of 2017, scientists working at over 70 ground- and space-based observatories on all continents confirmed gravitational waves and short gamma-ray bursts emanating from a binary neutron star collision 130 million light-years away. Scientists say such explosions may have created most of the gold in the universe.
It was the first time gravitational waves and light had been observed as a result of the same event. News of the discovery spread rapidly across the scientific community, as many physicists and astronomers had expected to never see evidence of neutron star collision.
“We witnessed history unfolding in front of our eyes: two neutron stars drawing closer, closer… turning faster and faster around each other, then colliding and scattering debris all over the place,” said co-discoverer Benoit Mours of France’s CNRS research institute.
Bangalore Sathyaprakash from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy called it the most exciting event of his scientific life.
“This event marks a turning point in observational astronomy and will lead to a treasure trove of scientific results.”
The discovery marks the first time gravitational waves have been detected via the entire electromagnetic spectrum. In four previous instances, Nobel Physics Prize-winning scientists observed these waves from the violent mergers of black holes, which emit no light.
Data from neutron star explosions could allow us to track the rate of the expanding universe, as well as pin an exact date to the cosmos.