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Groundbreaking Discovery by LIGO/Virgo Solves Cosmic Mystery

Faculty contribute to detection of neutron stars’ collision

Posted in: Science and Technology

Rendering of neutron stars orbiting and colliding

When two neutron stars collided in a galaxy 130 million light years away, scientists detected the gravitational waves and light produced by the collision. The historic discovery on August 17 was made using the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO); the Europe-based Virgo detector; and some 70 ground- and space-based observatories.

Montclair State physics faculty members Rodica Martin and Marc Favata are part of the international LIGO Scientific Collaboration team that made the discovery. A national- and state-designated doctoral research university, Montclair State has been a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration since 2013.

“We are proud to have two members of the LIGO team at Montclair State,” says College of Science and Mathematics Acting Dean Lora Billings. “Their contributions in unraveling the information provided by gravitational waves is a great example of the cutting-edge, collaborative research done in the College. The project also provides unique opportunities for our talented students. We hope that their amazing success continues.”

This is the first time a collision of two neutron stars – small, dense stars formed when huge stars explode in supernovas – has been detected using gravitational waves. It is also the first time a gravitational-wave signal has been accompanied by coincident detections with conventional telescopes.

“It is tremendously exciting to experience a rare event that transforms our understanding of the workings of the universe,” says France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, which funds LIGO.

While averaging just 12 miles in diameter, neutron stars are so dense that a teaspoon of neutron star material has a mass of roughly a billion tons. In a distant galaxy, two neutron stars spiraled toward each other, emitting powerful gravitational waves before they crashed into each other, causing a burst of gamma rays. Their collision produced a “chirp” recorded by the LIGO and Virgo detectors that lasted nearly 100 seconds. This happened 130 million light years away, in a galaxy 50 times farther than the Andromeda galaxy – the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way.

Photo of Marc Favata and his team

A Momentous Breakthrough

“This is a really big deal,” says Favata. “Neutron star collisions are one of the key sources that LIGO was hoping to observe – and now we have. It’s also the loudest source that our network of detectors has found so far.”

According to Favata, the discovery has resolved a persistent mystery as to the origin of short-duration gamma ray bursts (GRBs). “It’s long been suspected that these GRB’s are due to the collision of two neutron stars, but that hasn’t been confirmed until now.”

The new observations also resolve long-standing speculation as to how heavy elements, such as gold and lead, are produced. A by-product of the collision of the two neutron stars, these elements are distributed throughout the universe.

Equally important, Martin says, “The discovery involved lots of electromagnetic astronomers, all working together with LIGO/Virgo. Making joint observations with these partners has been a key goal for LIGO.”

Confirming Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

On August 17, LIGO and Virgo detectors registered gravitational waves – or ripples in the geometry of space and time – at roughly the same time that NASA’s Fermi space telescope detected a burst of gamma rays. The discovery prompted follow-up observations by telescopes around the world.

Together, the gamma-ray measurements and gravitational-wave detections provide further confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which predicted that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light. In 2015, LIGO’s detection of gravitational-wave signals resulting from the merger of two black holes first validated Einstein’s theory and ushered in the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy. Earlier this month, LIGO founders Rainer Weiss and Kip Throne, as well as early LIGO Principal Investigator Barry Barish, received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Contributing to a Groundbreaking Discovery

As part of the approximately 1,200-member LIGO team, Favata and Martin helped contribute to its successes.

Martin helped to design and install various components of the upgrade to the detectors – called Advanced LIGO. “My role in the discovery was to help build the upgrade that enabled the recent discoveries,” she explains. “My current role is to develop and design optical components and instrumentation for future detectors. This will increase the sensitivity and allow us to observe even more distant events or sources that are currently too weak to detect.”

Favata helped develop some of the gravitational-wave models used to analyze neutron star collisions. He and Martin are also actively involved in education and outreach efforts on behalf of LIGO. These include the www.soundsofspacetime.org website, which is being updated with sounds from the new detections, as well as informative exhibits of LIGO science. Both professors work closely with a team of eight students on experimental, theoretical and educational aspects of gravitational physics. The team is comprised of undergraduates Valerie Avendano, Kevin Chen, Lita de la Cruz, Xavier Euceda, Nicholas Provost, Kevin Santiago, and graduate students Joseph DeGaetani and Matthew Karlson.

“This detection opens the window of a long-awaited ‘multi-messenger’ astronomy,” says Caltech’s David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory. “It’s the first time that we’ve observed a cataclysmic astrophysical event in both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves – our cosmic messengers. Gravitational-wave astronomy offers new opportunities to understand the properties of neutron stars in ways that just can’t be achieved with electromagnetic astronomy alone.”

Read more about the science behind LIGO’s gravitational waves research and discoveries in Listening to the Universe, a recent article in the Fall 2017 issue of Insights, the Research Chronicle of the College of Science and Mathematics.

More details are available at ligo.org.

About LIGO/Virgo

LIGO is funded by the NSF, and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project.

More than 1,200 scientists and some 100 institutions from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian collaboration OzGrav. Additional partners are listed at http://ligo.org/partners.php

The Virgo collaboration consists of more than 280 physicists and engineers belonging to 20 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare(INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the University of Valencia; and the European Gravitational Observatory, EGO, the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, funded by CNRS, INFN, and Nikhef.