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Scientists spot neutron stars as they clash and flash

Neutron star merger
An artist’s conception shows two neutron stars merging, and sending out radiation as well as gravitational waves in the process. (NSF / LIGO / Sonoma State University Illustration / A. Simonnet)

For the first time ever, researchers have recorded the cataclysmic smash-up of two neutron stars by virtue of their gravitational waves as well as their electromagnetic emissions, producing data that could unlock cosmic secrets galore.

The findings from the Aug. 17 event, detailed today in more than a dozen research papers, represent the best example of “multi-messenger astronomy.”

More than 70 observatories and thousands of scientists contributed to the findings, headed by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO.

“We did it again — but this time, we all did it,” David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said at today’s news briefing announcing the results.

By combining the gravitational-wave readings with observations in wavelengths ranging from radio signals to gamma rays, scientists are gaining new insights into how neutron stars evolve, and how gold and other heavy elements are forged in their furnaces.

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Hubbub hints at smash-up of neutron stars

Neutron star merger
An artist’s conception visualizes the gravitational waves given off by a neutron star collision. (LIGO / MIT / Caltech Illustration)

Another big announcement about gravitational waves is coming up, and this time the hints point to  observations in electromagnetic wavelengths as well — emissions of light that may have come from a collision of neutron stars, or a supernova.

That would be a biggie for astronomers: So far, the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, have detected three confirmed collisions of black holes, but no neutron star smash-ups or stellar explosions.

All will be revealed at 7 a.m. PT on Oct. 16, when representatives from LIGO, Europe’s Virgo gravitational-wave observatory, and a sampling of researchers from 70 other observatories are to share new findings during a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

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Gravitational wave hunters win Nobel for physics

Image: LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

This year’s Nobel Prize for physics is going, unsurprisingly, to three people who represent the hundreds of researchers behind the first direct detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO.

Some of those researchers work at the LIGO detector in Hanford, Wash.

Like the Nobel-winning discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, LIGO’s discovery was the result of decades of work, undertaken with the expectation of finding evidence for an exotic phenomenon that was long predicted.

But because of the rules for the scientific Nobel Prizes, no more than three physicists could be given a share of the $1.1 million award.

The Nobel laurels are going to MIT’s Rainer Weiss and Caltech’s Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, who are recognized as ringleaders for the $500 million LIGO project.

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The gravitational-wave hunt just got bigger

Gravitational waves
This graphic shows the ripples in spacetime created by gravitational waves emanating from the merger of two black holes. (Max Planck Institute / NCSA Illustration)

Astronomers have detected their fourth gravitational wave from the merger of two black holes, but this one marks a new milestone.

It’s the first wave picked up by the Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy — and the first opportunity to triangulate on its location with the twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, in Louisiana and Washington state.

The Aug. 14 event, known as GW170814, showed that the ripples in spacetime were emitted by the smash-up of two black holes about 31 times and 25 times as massive as the sun, located about 1.8 billion light-years away. The merger created a single black hole about 53 times the sun’s mass.

Three solar masses were converted directly into gravitational-wave energy, in accordance with Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2.

All that follows the model set by LIGO with its three previous detections since September 2015. The new twist involves folding in the data from Virgo, which started its first full-fledged advanced run in league with LIGO on Aug. 1.

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Third black hole crash expands LIGO frontier

An artist’s conception shows two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO. (LIGO / Caltech / MIT / Sonoma State Illustration / Aurore Simonnet)

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory has detected its third confirmed black hole merger, and this one’s a doozy: LIGO’s latest discovery is about 3 billion light-years away, which is more than twice as far away as the first two finds.

The gravitational wave signature of the newly reported smash-up, known as GW170104, also confirms that there’s a heavyweight class for stellar-mass black holes.

“It clearly establishes a new population of black holes that were not known before LIGO,” said Bangalore Sathyaprakash, a physicist at Penn State and Cardiff University.

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2016: The Year in Aerospace and Science

Orbiting black holes
A visualization shows gravitational waves produced by orbiting black holes. (NASA Graphic / C. Henze)

The biggest science story of 2016 was a century in the making, and will surely earn someone a Nobel Prize. The first detection of gravitational waves from the crash of two black holes is important not only for the physics of the past and present, but for the physics of the future as well.

The discovery – made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO – serves as powerful confirmation for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which was published in 1916. It also points the way for scientists to study black holes and other exotic phenomena that can’t be observed using the traditional tools of astronomy.

“What’s really exciting is what comes next,” David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, said when the discovery was announced in February. “I think we’re opening a window on the universe – a window of gravitational wave astronomy.”

Check out 2016’s top 10 stories and 2017’s top 5 trends on GeekWire.

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LIGO goes back to the gravity-wave grind

Image: LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory is back on the hunt for ripples in spacetime, months after reporting the first signature of a black hole collision in gravitational waves.

After a series of upgrades, the LIGO detectors at Hanford in Washington state and near Livingston, La., made the transition from engineering test runs to science observations at 8 a.m. PT today.

LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves – a phenomenon that was predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity back in 1915 – occurred during an engineering run in September 2015. But it took until February for the LIGO team to confirm the detection and report it to the world.

Scientists determined that the faint perturbations in the fabric of spacetime were created by a smash-up involving two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away. The violent collision created one bigger black hole, but in the process, an amount of mass equivalent to three suns was converted into gravitational waves.

LIGO picked up a second, smaller pulse of gravitational waves last December. Then the detectors were shut down in January for the upgrades.

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LIGO witnesses another black hole crash

Image: Gravitational waves
An artist’s conception shows gravitational waves emanating like ripples in space time as two black holes approach each other in their orbits. (Credit: T. Pyle / LIGO)

t looks as if gravitational-wave watchers are in for a bumpy, beautiful ride. Scientists using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, have confirmed the detection of another merger involving two faraway black holes.

The observations, which were made last Christmas and reported today in a paper published by Physical Review Letters, support the idea that LIGO could open up a whole new branch of astronomy focusing on gravitational disturbances and black holes.

“It is a promising start to mapping the populations of black holes in our universe,” Gabriela Gonzalez, a Louisiana State University astrophysicist who serves as the spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said in a news release.

She and her colleagues say this smash-up was smaller than the first black-hole merger, which was observed in September and reported by the LIGO team in February. That clash involved black holes that were 29 and 36 times as massive as the sun. This one brought together black holes that were eight and 14 times the sun’s mass.

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1,015 LIGO scientists share $3 million prize

Image: LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

This year’s revelations about gravitational waves are certain to win someone a Nobel Prize someday, but an even richer prize has already been awarded to the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

Caltech’s Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, along with MIT’s Rainer Weiss, are among the winners of a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth $3 million. Those three founders of the $1.1 billion LIGO project will share $1 million of the prize. The remaining $2 million will be divvied up among the 1,012 authors ofFebruary’s research paper detailing the gravitational wave detection.

The announcement was made on May 2 by the prize selection committee.

Over the past five years, Breakthrough Prizes have been given out to researchers in life sciences, physics and mathematics. The founders of the prize program include such billionaire tech luminaries as Google’s Sergei Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Russian investor Yuri Milner. (Milner is also behind the recently announcedBreakthrough Starshot mission to Alpha Centauri.)

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Gravitational waves spark tuneful tribute

Tim Blais, the singing scientist behind “Bohemian Gravity,” “Rolling in the Higgs” and “The Surface of Light,” is back with another pop parody that’s packed with physics. And this time it’s as big as a black hole – or at least the gravitational waves generated by black holes crashing together.

“LIGO Feel that Space,” sung to the tune of “I Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd, delves into the potentially Nobel-winning detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, better known as LIGO.

Last month’s announcement about the detection set off a wave of wonderment, in part because it affirmed one of the predictions made a century earlier by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Gravitational-wave observations are also expected to provide a new way to study the universe’s most dramatic phenomena, such as supernovae, black hole mergers and neutron star collisions.

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