By Heather Pearson
Scientists announced on Monday that they have detected the collision of two dead stars for the first time in human history.
“It’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry,” said Peter Saulson from Syracuse University about the event. “It’s the fulfillment of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people’s efforts, but it’s also the fulfillment of an idea suddenly becoming real.”
The collision, known as a kilonova, allowed scientists to confirm how heavy elements such as gold, silver and platinum are created. It was also a landmark moment in detecting gravitational waves.
These waves are “ripples in the fabric of spacetime,” hypothesized about by Einstein over a hundred years ago but unconfirmed until 2016. At that time, the LIGO Laboratory directly detected such waves for the first time when two black holes collided and their sensors picked it up in a landmark moment leading to a Nobel Prize in Physics.
Yet, Dennis Overbye writes, “for the researchers, this [recent collision] is in some ways an even bigger bonanza than the original discovery,” as the aftereffects of such a collision are more visible to astronomers and have already yielded greater discoveries. This is because the recent impact marked the first time scientists have been able to detect and study the collision of two neutron stars.
According to National Geographic, neutron stars are “the most compact objects [in the universe] outside of black holes — a sugar cube of the stuff would weigh a billion tons.” In this way, though they are roughly the size of a large city like San Francisco, these stars weigh more than our sun. So, after spending roughly 11 billion years circling each other at a closer and closer distance and faster and faster rhythm, two of these dead massive stars crashed into each other 130 million years ago. The ripples from this explosive impact reached Earth last August, sending scientists across the globe into high excitement. Only this week have their findings been confirmed.
Scientists discovered that the collision of neutron stars formed heavy elements such as gold, silver and platinum. When two neutron stars collide, a huge cloud of debris is expelled out, made up of radioactive waste as well as precious metals. This specific star collision emitted astronomical amounts of precious metals by human standards: the equivalent of roughly 200 Earth masses of pure gold, and 500 Earth masses of platinum
“It’s crazy to think that these things that seem very far out and kind of exotic actually impact the world and us in kind of intimate ways,” remarked theoretical astrophysicist Daniel Kasen. His own wedding ring is made from platinum.
Dr. Holz, an astrophysicist from University of Chicago reflected, “I still can’t believe how lucky we all are…It’s all just too good to be true. But as far we can tell it’s really true. We’re living the dream.”