For Astronomers, a Neutron Star Merger Could Eclipse the Eclipse

Late last week, as some staff astronomers embarked on trips to see Monday’s solar eclipse, two of NASA’s space-based observatories — Hubble and Chandra X-ray — and at least two land-based telescopes scrambled to capture a far more explosive event. The astronomers who stayed behind trained their telescopes on a patch of sky where they hoped to find an astrophysical Rosetta stone: a cataclysmic event capable of producing electromagnetic signals on top of gravitational waves separately detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO).

The LIGO collaboration made headlines in February 2016 when it announced it had detected gravitational waves from two colliding black holes. Four months later, while still in its first observing run, the team confirmed the detection of a second black hole merger. A third such merger was detected in January during Advanced LIGO’s second observing run, which ended today. This possible new event could represent something special.

While two merging black holes are thought to produce nothing detectable beyond a crescendo of gravitational waves, events involving two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole could also leave behind a glowing wreckage for telescopes to see. LIGO has yet to confirm that such an event has been detected. “Some promising gravitational-wave candidates have been identified in data from both LIGO and Virgo during our preliminary analysis, and we have shared what we currently know with astronomical observing partners,” said an announcement posted by the LIGO team this morning.

But there has been speculation on Twitter, in a New Scientist article and on astronomer Peter Coles’s blog that such a link has been found, based on publicly available observation logs.

“If the detection is true, it would be transformative for the field and probably one of the greatest discoveries in astronomy,” said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz of the University of California,…

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