Astronomers Witness Two Neutron Stars Merging and Creating Gold, Platinum

Monday, 16 October 2017 - 7:06PM
Space
Astronomy
Monday, 16 October 2017 - 7:06PM
Astronomers Witness Two Neutron Stars Merging and Creating Gold, Platinum
Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science
It's crazy to think just how significant the recent discovery of gravitational waves has been to our understanding of the universe. In the short couple of years since scientists first found a way to measure and record these waves, we've been able to use them as a kind of intergalactic sonar, piecing together the shape and movement of various celestial bodies around the observable universe.

And it's these waves which just allowed astronomers to witness the merging of two neutron stars, far away in a galaxy 130 million light-years from Earth. While theories have existed for a long time regarding what might occur during such an event, we've now managed to learn quite a bit - including, as it turns out, that the marriage of two neutron stars results in an explosion of gold, platinum, and other heavy metals.

The discovery, made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGOScientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration, involved watching two neutron stars in the faraway NGC 4993 galaxy as they were pulled into each other's gravitational orbits, cycling closer and closer to each other before exploding in a burst of incredibly pretty debris.

According to Daniel Kasen of the University of California, Berkeley:

Opening quote
"That debris is strange stuff. It's gold and platinum, but it's mixed in with what you'd call just regular radioactive waste, and there's this big radioactive waste cloud that just starts mushrooming out from the merger site. It starts out small, about the size of a small city, but it's moving so fast - a few tenths of the speed of light - that after a day it's a cloud the size of the solar system."
Closing quote


It's probably not worth thinking too hard about just how much precious metals was created in the explosion, but considering that Kasen estimates that the cloud of gold alone weighs as much as two hundred planet Earths, with more than twice as much platinum.

Of course, considering how far away the gold is, and how long ago this merger took place relative to our position in the universe, the most valuable thing that humanity has gained is knowledge, and a better understanding of what happens when stars come together.



While we've seen evidence of black holes merging (or at least orbiting each other) in the past, seeing two neutron stars go through this process is a wonderful new breakthrough, and is a nice reminder of just how cool the universe is. And it would have been completely invisible to us had we not had a means of recording gravitational waves.

It's nice to think that there is now a record of this event, and that it's not going to be forgotten any time soon. It gives us hope that maybe when our own sun eventually dies, someone somewhere in the big, wide universe might notice it, and allow us to live on in memory.

Also, it's nice to think about a cosmically giant cloud of gold floating through space, just waiting for some plucky space prospectors to come along and fill their pockets. In balance, that's a much more tantalizing prospect.
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