A TELESCOPE based at the Gravitational Wave Discovery centre in Gingin has played a role in monitoring the collision of two neutron stars 120 million light-years away.
The University of Western Australia’s Zadko telescope at the centre’s Neergabby base was one of several telescopes, which monitored the optical glow emitted by the collision.
The Zadko telescope offers a window to the “transient universe” – a universe filled with fleeting flashes of light originating from the most exotic phenomena in the cosmos.
UWA Zadko telescope benefactor James Zadko said the university’s role in the discovery would help uncover some of the deepest mysteries of the universe.
“Given the time the telescope has operated, this is an extraordinary achievement and can lead to the understanding of multiple theories waiting to be answered,” he said.
A UMA spokesman said scientists from the university had helped usher in a new dawn of astronomy by assisting with the detection of one of the greatest phenomena ever witnessed in astronomy.
On August 17 a burst of gravitational waves (ripples in space-time) was detected by the US and European gravitational wave detectors LIGO and Virgo.
Within seconds, a burst of gamma rays was detected by NASA.
Several hours later it emitted an optical glow, which was monitored by ground-based telescopes across the globe, including the Zadko telescope.
The Zadko Telescope, operated by UWA’s School of Physics and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), monitored the explosion for four days.
The data will be combined with other OzGrav observations to understand the exotic physics unfolding after the collision.
UWA’s Associate Professor David Coward said everything about the discovery was new.
“The fact that gravitational waves, gamma rays, light and radio signals are all coming from the same source is extraordinary,” he said.
Neutron stars are the smallest and densest stars known to exist and occur when a star about the mass of the sun condenses into a volume the size of Rottnest Island.
In this instance, two neutron stars orbiting each other at near the speed of light collided, releasing a burst of gravitational waves, gamma rays, optical light and then a slowly revealing burst of radio waves.
Associate Professor Coward said the discovery would allow scientists to unlock the mysterious process of how heavy metals such as gold formed in the universe.
“The gold we wear comes from the collision of neutron stars billions of years ago and the optical glow we recorded through the Zadko telescope originated from this process.
“In millions of years this material could become part of a new star and a new solar system,” he said.
“This also leads to the evolution of life because life requires certain elements which are created from stars, so witnessing an event like this could open up a whole range of possible theories.”
The announcement comes less than a month after the discovery of gravitational waves won the 2017 Nobel Prize for physics.
UWA and OzGrav researcher Dr Eric Howell said the joint detection of a gravitational wave signal with a gamma-ray burst was theorised but scientists had expected to wait many years before observing the first incredible event.
“For the first time, scientists have worked together with different technologies to study this phenomenon and combined their data to create a timeline of this amazing story,” he said.
“By combing all this data, scientists will be able to test the fundamental laws of physics under the most extreme conditions.”