This Giant Neutron Star Merger Just Made Black Hole History

Friday, 01 June 2018 - 1:26PM
Astronomy
Black Holes
Friday, 01 June 2018 - 1:26PM
This Giant Neutron Star Merger Just Made Black Hole History
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Image credit: NASA

Remember when everyone was afraid that colliding tiny particles together with the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole that would consume the Earth? Well, it turns out that the cosmos did something like that, but on a much, much bigger scale.

 

Last year, scientists discovered that two neutron stars rammed into one another with incredible force after orbiting one another at high speed. Unlike the LHC, however, this may have actually created a black hole—and it may be the smallest one ever observed.



Neutron stars are pretty weird in themselves. They're the incredibly dense leftovers of a collapsed star that's gone supernova, and despite being very, very small (only about 18 miles in diameter), they pack more mass than our own Sun.

 

According to Cornell, "A teaspoon of neutron star material would weigh about 10 million tons." 

 

All that mass means an incredible gravitational pull—and huge gravitational waves when they come together.

 

It was these waves that scientists spotted in August 2017, leading to the first-ever recorded instance of two neutron stars colliding.

 

At the time, it was a major breakthrough for gravitational wave science, too.

 

Here's how Peter Saulson of Syracuse University described the discovery:

 

"It's so beautiful. It's so beautiful it makes me want to cry. It's the fulfillment of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people's efforts, but it's also the fulfillment of an idea suddenly becoming real."



But that's not the end of the story.

 

Based on the signals scientists have picked up so far (especially X-rays), the merger has created something with around 2.7 times the mass of our Sun, which would make it either the largest neutron star ever observed or the smallest black hole we've seen yet.

 

Based on the fact that the new object is only producing faint X-rays, the logical conclusion is that it's a black hole—otherwise, it'd be acting like a pulsar and throwing out much stronger X-rays.

 

If the object, dubbed GW170817, really is a black hole, it's around 30 percent smaller than the next record holders, which are around four times our Sun's mass.



New observations in the coming years will hopefully clear up the mystery.

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