While some astronomers were busy observing the total solar eclipse, two of NASA’s space-based observatories, Hubble and Chandra X-ray, along with two land-based telescopes, were able to capture a far more explosive scientific event. The astronomers trained their telescopes to zoom in on a patch of sky where they have been looking to find an astrophysical Rosetta stone. It is a cataclysmic event that is capable of producing electromagnetic signals on top of gravitational waves separately detected by the Advanced LIGO (Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).
It was back in February 2016 when it was announced that the LIGO collaboration had detected gravitational waves from two colliding blackholes. The team later confirmed the detection of a second black hole merger, while it was still in its first observing run. A third merger has since been detected during the second observing run of Advanced LIGO, and it is this new event which could provide more crucial data.
While the two merging black holes did not produce anything more than a crescendo of gravitational waves, events that involve either two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole are thought to leave a glowing wreckage for telescopes to see. However, LIGO has yet to confirm if such an event has been detected. According to the team, “some promising gravitational-wave candidates have been identified in data from both LIGO and Virgo” while doing their preliminary analysis.
Why is such a detection important? According to Enrico Ramirez-Ruis of the University of California, Santa Cruz, if the detection turns out to be true, it would be “transformative for the field and probably one of the greatest discoveries in astronomy.”
In recent years, many scientists have been convinced that rare mergers of binary neutron stars provide a solution to multiple open problems in astronomy, including the brief flashes of gamma rays from the distant universe. It could also help physicists better understand how matter behaves at densities in comparison to the nucleus of an atom.