Second Collision of Neutron Stars Detected

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo collaborations have detected the collision of the second pair of neutron stars.

This is the first major event of LIGO detector’s third observing run. This is the second observing run to be conducted with the company of the Virgo detector in Italy.

On April 25, 2019, the LIGO Livingston Observatory picked up what appeared to be gravitational ripples from a collision of two neutron stars. LIGO Livingston is part of a gravitational-wave network that includes LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory), funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the European Virgo detector. Now, a new study confirms that this event was indeed likely the result of a merger of two neutron stars. This would be only the second time this type of event has ever been observed in gravitational wave.

Neutron Stars that Collided Were Larger Than Previously Known Neutron Stars

The first such observation, which took place in August of 2017, made history for being the first time that both gravitational waves and light were detected from the same cosmic event. The April 25 merger, by contrast, did not result in any light being detected. However, through an analysis of the gravitational-wave data alone, researchers have learned that the collision produced an object with an unusually high mass.

“From conventional observations with light, we already knew of 17 binary neutron star systems in our own galaxy and we have estimated the masses of these stars,” says Ben Farr, a LIGO team member based at the University of Oregon. “What’s surprising is that the combined mass of this binary is much higher than what was expected.”

The source of GW190425 is estimated to be at a distance of 500 million light years from the Earth. It is localized in the sky within an area about 300 times broader than was the case for the BNS observed by LIGO and Virgo in 2017, the famous GW170817, which gave birth to multi-messenger astrophysics. However, unlike GW170817, no counterpart (electromagnetic signals, neutrinos or charged particles) has been found to date.

There are a few explanations for the origin of GW190425. The most likely is the merger of a BNS system. Alternatively, it might have been produced by the merger of a system with a black hole (BH) as one or both components, even if light BHs in the mass-range consistent with GW190425 have not been observed. Yet, on the basis solely of GW data, these exotic scenarios cannot be ruled out. The estimated total mass of the compact binary is 3.4 times the mass of the Sun. Under the hypothesis that GW190425 originated from the merger of a BNS system, the latter would have been considerably different to all known BNS in our galaxy, the total mass range of which is between 2.5 and 2.9 times the mass of the Sun. This indicates that the NS system that originated GW190425 may have formed differently than known galactic BNSs.

Although predicted theoretically, heavy binary systems like those that might have originated GW190425 may be invisible through electromagnetic observations.”

“While we did not observe the object formed by the coalescence, our computer simulations based on general relativity predict that the probability that a BH is formed promptly after the merger is high, about 96%”, says Sebastiano Bernuzzi of the University of Jena, Germany.

43 Gravitational Wave Detectioin Events in Third Run

This observing run started in April 1, 2019 and there have been 43 unretracted alerts of gravitational-wave events in this run. Theere were 10 mergers announced in the catalog of the first two observing runs. This third observing run will continue until April 30, 2020, and a full accounting of the events seen in the first half of the year of observations are expected to come out around April.

The study, submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, is authored by an international team comprised of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration, the latter of which is associated with the Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy. The results were presented at a press briefing today, January 6, at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Details of the Event

The April 2019 event was first identified in data from the LIGO Livingston detector alone. The LIGO Hanford detector was temporarily offline at the time, and, at a distance of more than 500 million light-years, the event was too faint to be visible in Virgo’s data. Using the Livingston data, combined with information derived from Virgo’s data, the team narrowed the location of the event to a patch of sky more than 8,200 square degrees in size, or about 20 percent of the sky. For comparison, the August 2017 event was narrowed to a region of just 16 square degrees, or 0.04 percent of the sky.

“This is our first published event for a single-observatory detection,” says Caltech’s Anamaria Effler, a scientist who works at LIGO Livingston. “But Virgo made a valuable contribution. We used information about its non-detection to tell us roughly where the signal must have originated from.”

The LIGO data reveal that the combined mass of the merged bodies is about 3.4 times the mass of our sun. In our galaxy, known binary neutron star systems have combined masses up to only 2.9 times that of sun. One possibility for the unusually high mass is that the collision took place not between two neutron stars, but a neutron star and a black hole, since black holes are heavier than neutron stars. But if this were the case, the black hole would have to be exceptionally small for its class. Instead, the scientists believe it is much more likely that LIGO witnessed a shattering of two neutron stars.

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