The behind the scenes hunt for the neutron star collision
The initial discovery
At 8:41 a.m. ET on August 17th, 2017, gravitational wave detectors picked up an unusual signal - a ripple in space time. And at that same moment, NASA's Fermi space telescope with its eye in orbit around the Earth also detected something unusual. It picked up an intense burst of high-energy light known as a gamma ray burst coming from deep space.
Astronomers almost immediately suspected these signals came from a cataclysmic collision between two neutron stars - the densest stars in our universe. They sent an alert out to astronomers around the world to begin the hunt for this stellar explosion.
The hunt for the collision source
By combining data from the gravitational wave detectors and the gamma ray burst, astronomers had a general idea of where to look for the source of this neutron star collision. Dr. Maria Drout, a Hubble and Carnegie-Dunlap Fellow at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute and the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, was working remotely out of Pasadena, California that day with her colleagues at three observatories in Chile.
- Paper in the journal Science, Swope Supernova Survey 2017a (SSS17a), the optical counterpart to a gravitational wave source
- Paper in the journal Science, Light curves of the neutron star merger GW170817/SSS17a: Implications for r-process nucleosynthesis
Why this is the dawn of a new era in astronomy
"It's being called the dawn of a new era because this is the first time that we have for the same system both gravitation wave detections and detections of light - across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This is incredibly valuable because each of them give you new and different, complementary pieces of information," says Dr. Drout.