At about 8:41 am EDT on 17 August 2017, both LIGO observatories recorded a 100-second long gravitational wave (GW) signal that appeared to be coming from two neutron stars orbiting each other and merging together (this detection is called GW170817). 1.7 seconds later, the Fermi Gamma Ray Burst Monitor detected a short gamma-ray burst (GRB). LIGO's online data analysis, along with Virgo not detecting the event due to its location in a part of the sky it isn't sensitive to, narrowed down the possible location of the gravitational wave source to the constellation Hydra (in the Southern Hemisphere) which overlapped with the area determined from the GRB detection. Both the LIGO and GRB detectors put out circulars alerting the astronomy community to the independent discoveries; an event like this was unprecedented and became a priority target for observation. LIGO also produced a luminosity distance (a method of estimating the distance to the source) of about 130 million light-years.
11 hours after the gravitational wave and GRB detections (the delay was caused by the time it took for the Earth to rotate observatories in South America into their nighttime sky), the 1-m Swope Telescope in Chile observed a new point of light (referred to as a transient) from galaxy NGC 4993, also about 130 million light-years away! Approximately 70 other observatories, both on our planet and orbiting it, observed this new source of light: 11.5 hours after GW/GRB detection, infrared light was observed; 15 hours later, ultraviolet light was observed; as the days went on, the optical light from the source became redder (longer wavelength) and dimmer than the early days; 9 days later, x-rays were observed; 16 days later, radio waves were observed.
TURNING OBSERVATIONS INTO MEANING
The cause(s) of short GRBs have been the subject of much theoretical research; the predominant theory is that they are caused by the merger of two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole. The problem is that light isn't capable of bringing us information about these kinds of systems. So, we've seen many short GRBs, we have ideas about how they are made based on these observations, and have been waiting for evidence to either support or refute the theory. Fortunately, gravitational waves bring us the information about the system that light can't, like the masses of the objects and how they moved around each other. This is the first conclusive evidence that at least some of the short GRBs are created by neutron star mergers.
This visualization shows the coalescence of two orbiting neutron stars. The left panel contains a visualization of the matter of the neutron stars. The different colored layers are different densities, which have been made transparent to show more structure. The right panel shows how space-time is distorted near the collisions. The spiral wave distortions at the end of the merger propagate to Earth and are measured as gravitational waves. [Credit: (taken from ligo.org) Christopher W. Evans/Georgia Tech]
Light observations allowed us to observe the rapid fading of the brightness and gradual lengthening of the wavelength (reddening) of the light which is a signature of a kilonova explosion. Kilonovae are also thought to be the source of most of the heavy elements in the universe. (I have previouslyattributed these to supernova here; further research has shown that while a supernova can make some heavy elements, it can't make enough of the heavier ones like gold to account for the amounts we have.) Breaking the light down into its different wavelengths (colors) tells us about the composition of the source or of elements being created. Measurements like this showed that heavy elements were indeed created as predicted in this kilonova and supports that neutron star mergers may very well be the source of most of the heavy elements in the universe.
|Periodic table indicating the sources of the elements. Orange indicates formation from the merger of neutron stars like the source of GW170817. [Credit: Jenifer Johnson]
The timing of the arrival of gravitational waves and the gamma-ray burst (1.7 seconds later) are our strongest support yet that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. Detecting gravitational waves first is not unexpected since this system has been producing gravitational waves its whole life and we only saw the last 100 seconds of it. It is the dynamics of what happens during the merger that produces the light in the form of a GRB, so we should expect a delay. Even when considering different possible ways and times for light to be made in a system like this, our observations are consistent with the prediction that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light.
WHAT DID THIS NEUTRON STAR MERGER CREATE?
A remaining question that the observations we've made hasn't been able to answer is: What did this neutron star merger create: a very large neutron star or a black hole? We simply don't know and the reason why is that we don't have a firm understanding of the equation of state (EOS) for a neutron star (EOS is a technical term for describing matter and how it behaves). Depending on different possible EOSs, we can get either a small black hole or a very massive neutron star at some time after the merger. We also looked for gravitational wave evidence of which it is since a small black hole would have produced gravitational waves at about 6000 Hz and a very massive neutron star would produce them up to 4000 Hz. The LIGO detectors are not very sensitive at high frequencies, making finding evidence for a resultant black hole impossible. We did search for gravitational waves consistent with the formation of a very massive neutron star until the end of the run on 25 August (8 days later) and didn't find anything. We found nothing to support either possibility so we simply don't know!
THIS IS JUST THE START!
This is the true beginning of multi-messenger astronomy! As was referred to in this post, gravitational waves, light, and neutrinos (looked for during this event but none were found) bring us different information about the universe. Gravitational waves tell us about how mass moves around and how much of it there is; light tells us about temperature, and composition; neutrinos can bring us information about the nuclear reactions happening deep within a star. The effort to make and share all of these observations require not just scientific knowledge, but cooperation on a large scale. There are many things that divide us in our societies; this is something we should be proud to unite us!