AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS AT HELM OF THE EXTRAORDINARY DISCOVERY OF TWO NEUTRON STAR-BLACK HOLE COLLISIONS WITNESSED FOR THE FIRST TIME
A newly discovered astronomical phenomenon was revealed in a globally coordinated announcement of not one, but two events witnessed last year: the death spiral and merger of two of the densest objects in the Universe—a neutron star and a black hole.
The discovery of these remarkable events, which occurred before the time of the dinosaurs but only just reached Earth, will now allow researchers to further understand the nature of the space-time continuum and the building blocks of matter.
The discoveries were made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US, and the Virgo gravitational-wave observatory in Italy, with significant involvement from Australian researchers.
According to Dr Rory Smith—from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational-Wave Discovery (OzGrav) and Monash University, and the international co-lead on the paper published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters—the discoveries are a milestone for gravitational-wave astronomy. “Witnessing these events opens up new possibilities to study the fundamental nature of space-time, and matter at its most extreme,” Dr Smith said.
The first observation of a neutron star-black hole system was made on Jan 5th, 2020 when gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of space and time—were detected from the merger of the neutron star with the black hole by LIGO and Virgo.
Detailed analysis of the gravitational waves reveal that the neutron star was around twice as massive as the Sun, while the black hole was around nine times as massive as the Sun. The merger itself happened around a billion years ago, before the first dinosaurs appeared on Earth.
Remarkably, on January 15th 2020, another merger of a neutron star with a black hole was observed by LIGO and Virgo using gravitational waves. This merger also took place around a billion years ago, but the system was slightly less massive: the neutron star was around one and a half times as massive as the Sun, while the black hole was around five and a half times as massive.
Dr. Smith explains the significance: “Astronomers have been searching for neutron stars paired with black holes for decades because they’re such a great laboratory to test fundamental physics. Mergers of neutron stars with black holes dramatically warp space-time—the fabric of the Universe—outputting more power than all the stars in the observable Universe put together. The new discoveries give us a glimpse of the Universe at its most brilliant and extreme. We will learn a great deal about the fundamental nature of space-time and black holes, how matter behaves at the highest possible pressures and densities, how stars are born, live, and die, and how the Universe has evolved throughout cosmic time”.
The discovery involved an international team of thousands of scientists, with Australia playing a leading role. “From the design and operation of the detectors to the analysis of the data, Australian scientists are working at the frontiers of astronomy,” Dr Smith added.
Black holes and neutron stars are two of the most extreme objects ever observed in the Universe—they are born from exploding massive stars at the end of their lives. Typical neutron stars have a mass of one and a half times the mass of the Sun, but all of that mass is contained in an extremely dense star, about the size of a city. The star is so dense that atoms cannot sustain their structure as we normally perceive them on Earth.
Black holes are even more dense objects than neutron stars: they have a lot of mass, normally at least three times the mass of our Sun, in a tiny amount of space. Black holes contain an “event horizon” at their surface: a point of no return that not even light can escape.
“Black holes are a kind of cosmic enigma,” explained Dr Smith. “The laws of physics as we understand them break down when we try to understand what is at the heart of a black hole. We hope that by observing gravitational waves from black holes merging with neutron stars, or other black holes, we will begin to unravel the mystery of these objects.”
When LIGO and Virgo observe neutron stars merging with black holes, they are orbiting each other at around half the speed of light before they collide. “This puts the neutron star under extraordinary strain, causing it to stretch and deform as it nears the black hole. The amount of stretching that the neutron star can undergo depends on the unknown form of matter that they’re made of. Remarkably, we can measure how much the star stretches before it disappears into the black hole, which gives us a totally unique way to learn about the building blocks of protons and neutrons,” Dr Smith said.
"Using one of the most powerful Australian supercomputers and the most accurate solutions to Einstein's famous field equations known to date, we were able to measure the properties of these collisions, such as how heavy the neutron stars and black holes are, and how far away these events were," he said.
Publication in Astrophysical Journal (ApJL)
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