HILO — About 130 million years ago, two neutron stars collided, seeding the cosmos with gold and other heavy elements and scattering gravitational waves in all directions.
Those ripples in space were detected Aug. 17 on Earth by sensitive instruments, prompting a worldwide scramble by scientists seeking to confirm an event they knew would launch a new era of astronomy.
There was no shortage of eyes on this patch of sky near the Hydra constellation.
More than 70 telescopes and laboratories participated, including the Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea and Pan-STARRS on Haleakala, making it the most well-observed event in the history of astronomy.
Confirmation of the collision, the first ever detected kilonova, was announced Monday following a blitz of science over two months.
Subaru spokeswoman Yuko Kakazu called it the “discovery of the century.”
“This is all we talk about right now,” she said.
The first hint there was something going on came from the Nobel Prize-winning Laser Inteferometer Gravitational Wave-Observatory, which uses lasers to detect subtle changes in space. LIGO, consisting of two mainland locations, made history in 2015 when it detected the first gravitational waves caused by merging black holes.
But to confirm the waves detected in August were from a neutron star collision required the use of observatories in space and on the ground. Astronomers not only witnessed the distant flash, but also captured crucial data from the event, which had been theorized to result in heavy elements like platinum and gold.
As a result, measurements of the light and other energy emanating from the crash have helped scientists explain how planet-killing gamma ray bursts are born and how fast the universe is expanding, in addition to where all that “cosmic bling,” as at least one researcher has called the elements, came from.
“We already knew that iron came from a stellar explosion, the calcium in your bones came from stars, and now we know the gold in your wedding ring came from merging neutron stars,” said University of California Santa Cruz’s Ryan Foley.
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