In case you missed the big science news this week: we detected another set of gravitational waves passing through the Earth, distorting space-time by less than the width of an atomic nucleus. It sounds like science-fiction only it isn’t.
This time however, these waves were a little different, and so triggered an alert, sent out to scientists around the world to follow up with their own instruments.
In the hours and weeks that followed, 3,500 scientists from 70 observatories scrambled to point the world’s most powerful telescopes – optical, X-ray, infrared, radio, you name it – towards the source of those gravitational waves. For a while, it was the “most stared at spot on the sky” writes Nadia Drake.
Image: A Hubble Space Telescope image shows the oval galaxy NGC 4993 as it looked four months before the new gravitational wave detection, while a picture from the Swope Telescope in Chile shows where a bright spot appeared in the galaxy in August 2017. PHOTOGRAPH BY HUBBLE/STSCI (LEFT) AND PHOTOGRAPH BY 1M2H TEAM/UC SANTA CRUZ & CARNEGIE OBSERVATORIES/RYAN FOLEY (RIGHT)
And this is what they saw – a galaxy 130 million light years away, where two neutron stars orbiting one another in a deadly spiral had just collided and released a massive amount of energy. Notice the bright spot that appeared in the suburbs of the galaxy as a result, and imagine for a second the energy that was needed for a single event to shine that bright that we could see it and detect it so distinctly from Earth.
On the science front, the event told us about how heavy elements like gold and platinum are created among many other things.
On the societal front, it showed the incredible levels of responsiveness and collaboration between scientists around the world and what these big, expensive, facilities can achieve together. Increasingly, astronomy will require such “multi-messenger” observations where we pull resources together in order to be able to observe previously unseen phenomena and make breakthrough discoveries.
With an army of flagship facilities coming online such NASA & ESA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the suite of Extremely Large Telescopes being built in Chile and Hawaii in the optical and near infrared domain, the Cherenkov Telescope Array for gamma rays, the Atacama Large Millilmeter/submillimeter Array in far infrared and the Square Kilometre Array in radio waves…the future of astronomy is bright. Expect an exciting era of discovery in the next few decades!
If you’d like to read more about this story, read Nadia’s excellent summary in National Geographic.