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The Day the Universe Shook

25 May 2018, 14:00 UTC
The Day the Universe Shook
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August 17, 2017 was a watershed moment in the nascent field of gravitational-wave astronomy. On this date, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected a ripple in space-time, hereafter known as GW170817, originating near the constellation Hydra. A short while later, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor detected a faint pulse of gamma rays in this same location. When the full might of the world’s telescopes, both ground- and space-based, trained their sights on this location, a new source was detected.
For the first time, astronomers captured the electromagnetic signature of a gravitational wave event. It was a signal whose most likely origin was the merger of two neutron stars—something known as a kilonova. A kilonova is an extremely* energetic event, a thousand times brighter than an exploding star. To put this into perspective, a kilonova releases more energy in a fraction of a second than the Sun will produce in a million years—and the Sun is no slouch in energy production: it produces enough energy in one second to meet the electricity needs of the entire world for over 600,000 years! The extreme environment produced in a kilonova also seeds the surrounding space with heavy elements like gold and platinum. ...

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