On the 16th of October, scientists around the world gathered to hear an announcement that the LIGO project, working with their European equivalent Virgo, had directly observed a source of gravitational waves for the first time. Instead of previous detections where two black holes had collided, the collision was between two neutron stars, forming a kilonova. This meant that, unlike previous detections involving black holes, the resultant explosion could be detected visually, along with typical gravitational wave detection.

Within half an hour of the the initial detection, astronomers around the world had been alerted. They sprang into action, and soon over seventy telescopes were scanning the sky – seven of which were in space. The site of the collision was found around ten hours later. Not only was this the first time that a source of gravitational waves has been seen and measured directly, and the first time one of these explosive kilonova has been directly observed.

Over the following week, a battery of telescopes measured the emission from this source in wavelengths across the whole electromagnetic spectrum. This data has answered long-held questions about how heavy elements like gold and platinum are made in the universe, along with potentially explaining the source of short gamma ray bursts.

This discovery has built on the foundations laid down by this year’s Physics Nobel Laureates, who won the prize for gravitational wave research. It is thought that this new discovery will have just as many applications and new theories, continuing to pioneer the field of gravitational wave astronomy.

Scott Davis

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