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."


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.


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.)


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.

Could an Astronaut Steal a Rocket and Lift Off, Without Mission Control?


C Stuart Hardwick:

Not with any rocket that has ever thus far carried a person into orbit from Earth, no. Large rockets are complex, their launch facilities are complex, their trajectories are complex, and the production of their propellants is complex.

Let me give you one simple example:

  • Let’s say astro-Sally is the last woman on Earth, and is fully qualified to fly the Saturn-V.
  • Further, let’s say the Rapture (which as I understand it, is some sort of hip-hop induced global catastrophe that liquefies all the people) has left a Saturn-V sitting on the pad, raring to go.
  • Further, let’s grant that, given enough time, astro-Sally can locate sufficient documentation to operate the several dozen controls needed to pump the first stage propellant tanks full of kerosene.
  • Now what? Oxidizer, right? Wrong. First, she has to attend to the batteries, oxygen, hydrogen, and helium pressurant tanks in her spacecraft, otherwise it’s going to be a short, final flight. And she’ll need to fill the hypergolics for the spacecraft propulsion and maneuvering systems. If she screws that up, the rocket will explode with her crawling on it. If she gets a single drop of either of these on her skin or in her lungs, she’ll die.
  • But okay, maybe all the hypergolics were already loaded (not safe, but possible) and assume she manages to get the LOX, H2, and HE tanks ready without going Hindenburg all over the Cape.
  • And…let’s just say Hermione Granger comes back from the Rapture to work that obscure spell, propellantus preparum.
  • All set, right? Well, no. See, before any large rocket can lift off, the water quench system must be in operation. Lift off without it, and the sound pressure generated by the engines will bounce off the pad, cave in the first stage, and cause 36 stories of rocket to go “boom.”
  • So she searches the blockhouse and figures out how to turn on the water quench system, then hops in the director’s Tesla (why not?) and speeds out to the pad, jumps in the lift, starts up the gantry—and the water quench system runs out of water ... Where’d she think that water comes from? Fairies? No, it comes from a water tower—loaded with an ample supply for a couple of launch attempts. Then it must be refilled.

Now imagine how much harder this would all be with the FBI on your tail.

Can a rocket be built that’s simple enough and automated enough to be susceptible to theft? Sure. Have we done so? Nope. The Soyuz is probably the closest—being highly derived from an ICBM designed to be “easy” to launch, but even it’s really not very close.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

The Science Behind Why the Earth Isn't Flat

Earth as captured from near the lunar horizon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2015.
Earth as captured from near the lunar horizon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2015.

On March 24, 2018, flat-earther Mike Hughes set out prove that the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee. The plan: Strap himself to a homemade steam-powered rocket and launch 52 miles into sky above California’s Mojave Desert, where he'd see Earth's shape with his own eyes.

It didn't matter that astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong had been to space and verified that the Earth is round; Hughes didn't believe them. According to The Washington Post, Hughes thought they were "merely paid actors performing in front of a computer-generated image of a round globe."

The attempt, ultimately, was a flop. He fell back to Earth with minor injuries after reaching 1875 feet—not even as high as the tip of One World Trade Center. For the cost of his rocket stunt ($20,000), Hughes could have easily flown around the world on a commercial airliner at 35,000 feet.

Hughes isn't alone in his misguided belief: Remarkably, thousands of years after the ancient Greeks proved our planet is a sphere, the flat-Earth movement seems to be gaining momentum. "Theories" abound on YouTube, and the flat-Earth Facebook page has some 194,000 followers.

Of course, the Earth isn't flat. It's a sphere. There is zero doubt about this fact in the real, round world. To say the evidence is overwhelming is an understatement.


Not every celestial body is a sphere, but round objects are common in the universe: In addition to Earth and all other known large planets, stars and bigger moons are also ball-shaped. These objects, and billions of others, have the same shape because of gravity, which pulls everything toward everything else. All of that pulling makes an object as compact as it can be, and nothing is more compact than a sphere. Say, for example, you have a sphere of modeling clay that is exactly 10 inches in diameter. No part of the mass is more than 5 inches from the center. That's not the case with any other shape—some part of the material will be more than 5 inches from the center of the mass. A sphere is the smallest option.

Today the Earth is mostly solid with a liquid outer core, but when the planet was forming, some 4.5 billion years ago, it was very hot and behaved like more like a fluid—and was subject to the squishing effects of gravity.

And yet, the Earth isn't a perfect sphere; it bulges slightly at the equator. "Over a long time-scale, the Earth acts like a highly viscous fluid," says Surendra Adhikari, a geophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Earth has been spinning since it was formed, and "if you have a spinning fluid, it will bulge out due to centrifugal forces." You can see evidence for this at the equator, where the Earth's diameter is 7926 miles—27 miles larger than at the poles (7899 miles). The difference is tiny—just one-third of 1 percent.


The ancient Greeks figured out that Earth was a sphere 2300 years ago by observing the planet's curved shadow during a lunar eclipse, when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon. Some flat-Earth believers claim the world is shaped like a disk, perhaps with a wall of ice along the outer rim. (Why no one has ever seen this supposed wall, let alone crashed into it, remains unexplained.) Wouldn't a disk-shaped Earth also cast a round shadow? Well, it would depend on the orientation of the disk. If sunlight just happened to hit the disk face-on, it would have a round shadow. But if light hit the disk edge-on, the shadow would be a thin, straight line. And if the light fell at an oblique angle, the shadow would be a football–shaped ellipse. We know the Earth is spinning, so it can't present one side toward the Sun time after time. What we observe during lunar eclipses is that the planet's shadow is always round, so its shape has to be spherical.

The ancient Greeks also knew Earth's size, which they determined using the Earth's shape. In the 2nd century BCE, a thinker named Eratosthenes read that on a certain day, the people of Syene, in southern Egypt, reported seeing the Sun directly overhead at noon. But in Alexandria, in northern Egypt, on that same day at the same time, Eratosthenes had observed the Sun being several degrees away from overhead. If the Earth were flat, that would be impossible: The Sun would have to be the same height in the sky for observers everywhere, at each moment in time. By measuring the size of this angle, and knowing the distance between the two cities, Eratosthenes was able to calculate the Earth's diameter, coming up with a value within about 15 percent of the modern figure.

And when Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492, the question wasn't "Would he fall off the edge of the world?"—educated people knew the Earth was round—but rather, how long a westward voyage from Europe to Asia would take, and whether any new continents might be found along the way. During the Age of Exploration, European sailors noticed that, as they sailed south, "new" constellations came into view—stars that could never be seen from their home latitudes. If the world were flat, the same constellations would be visible from everywhere on the Earth's surface.

Finally, in 1522, Ferdinand Magellan's crew became the first people to circle the globe. Like Columbus, Magellan also set off from Spain, in 1519, heading west—and kept generally going west for the next three years. The expedition wound up back at the starting point (though without Magellan, who was killed during a battle in the Philippines). And speaking of ships and seafaring: One only needs to watch a tall ship sailing away from port to see that its hull disappears before the top of its mast. That happens because the ship is traveling along a curved surface; if the Earth were flat, the ship would just appear smaller and smaller, without any part of it slipping below the horizon.


But you don't need a ship to verify the Earth's shape. When the Sun is rising in, say, Moscow, it's setting in Los Angeles; when it's the middle of the night in New Delhi, the Sun is shining high in the sky in Chicago. These differences occur because the globe is constantly spinning, completing one revolution per day. If the Earth were flat, it would be daytime everywhere at once, followed by nighttime everywhere at once.

You also experience the Earth's roundness every time you take a long-distance flight. Jetliners fly along the shortest path between any two cities. "We use flight paths that are calculated on the basis of the Earth being round," Adhikari says. Imagine a flight from New York to Sydney: It would typically head northwest, toward Alaska, then southwest toward Australia. On the map provided in your airline's in-flight magazine, that might look like a peculiar path. But wrap a piece of string around a globe, and you'll see that it’s the shortest possible route.

"If the Earth were flat," Adhikari says, "the trajectory would be completely different." How different depends on which way the globe is sliced into a flattened map, but if it looked like it does on a Mercator-projection map, it might head east and pass over Africa.

Engineers and architects also take the Earth's curvature into account when building large structures. A good example is the towers that support long suspension bridges such as the Verrazano Narrows bridge in New York City. Its towers are slightly out of parallel with each other, the tops being more than 1.5 inches further apart than their bases. If the Earth were flat, the bottom of the towers would be separated by the exact same distance as the top of the towers; the planet's curvature forces the tops of the towers apart.

And for the last half-century, we've had eyewitness and photographic proof of the Earth's shape. In December 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 left Earth for the Moon. When they looked out of the Command Module windows, they saw a blue-and-white marble suspended against the blackness of space. On Christmas Eve, lunar module pilot William Anders snapped the famous "Earthrise" photograph. It gave us an awe-inspiring perspective of our round planet that was unprecedented in human history—but it wasn't a surprise to anyone.