The collision of two neutron stars, seen in an artist’s rendering, created both gravitational waves and gamma rays. Researchers used those signals to locate the event with optical telescopes. For the first time, scientists have caught two neutron stars in the act of colliding, revealing that these strange smashups are the source of heavy elements such as gold and platinum.
The discovery, announced Monday at a news conference and in scientific reports written by some 3,500 researchers, solves a long-standing mystery about the origin of these heavy elements — which are found in everything from wedding rings to cellphones to nuclear weapons.
It’s also a dramatic demonstration of how astrophysics is being transformed by humanity’s newfound ability to detect gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time that are created when massive objects spin around each other and finally collide.
“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,” says Peter Saulson of Syracuse University, who has spent more than three decades working on the detection of gravitational waves.
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