On October 16, 2017, scientists discovered the collision of two neutron stars of such magnitude that the resultant reaction would create hundreds of times the mass of our entire planet in gold and platinum.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the Europe-based Virgo detector, and dozens of other ground and space-based observatories have spotted the telltale gravitational ripples of an explosion so violent that it makes the world’s combined nuclear power seem like a gentle breeze.
Neutron stars are both the most diminutive astral bodies, and the densest. They are formed by the supernova of dying stars, and have incomprehensible gravitational pull. Astrophysicist Julie McEnery gave a stark measure of the scale of these celestial objects, explaining that “If you imagine something as massive as the sun, and squeeze it down so that it fits inside 10 miles in diameter, a spoonful of a neutron star would weigh as much as Mount Everest.”
Combine both factors, and you have the makings of an explosion that has now been observed from 130 million light-years away. That means this epic crash would have had to occur while Earth was still in the process of shattering its ancients supercontinents, just to allow for the light to travel far enough that we would have any way of seeing it today.
18 telescopes on six continents observed the phenomenon after, for the very first time, the gravitational force of the explosion was detected by LIGO and Virgo’s sophisticated sensors. On what McEnery calls “the best morning ever,” the gamma-ray burst not only confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, but gives us more insight into how those same heavy metals formed within our own planet. McEnery went on to explain:
With the observations we made, we were able to see the optical and infrared data that showed us the formation of heavy elements. They’re produced in nuclear reactions, and that heats up the surrounding material that produces the radiation that we see. So we could actually see the imprint of these materials being formed. We now know all of the heavy elements that we know of are almost certainly produced in explosions like this. This is the first time we actually caught this in the act.
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