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Oct. 19, 2017

MSU contributes to merging neutron star discovery

Michigan State University contributed to this week’s blockbuster science story – the observation of merging neutron stars, which made headlines around the globe.

The collision of neutron stars was the first one ever observed by scientists. It solves a long-standing mystery of the origin of heavy metals, such as gold and platinum. The news also is a dramatic demonstration of scientists’ recent ability to detect gravitational waves ­– confirming Albert Einstein’s theory of these ripples made more than 100 years ago.

Two massive detectors – the twins comprising the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – picked up the initial signal, and soon other observatories began honing in on the source. Another large detector, Virgo (Italy), did not detect it. This meant that the source had to be in Virgo’s small blind spot, thus narrowing the search.

Joining the search was the Southern Astrophysical Research telescope, better known as SOAR, located in Cerro Pachon, Chile. It’s operated by the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory for the SOAR consortium, which consists of MSU, the University of North Carolina, NOAO and Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, e Inovação da República Federativa do Brasil.

Since SOAR is flexible in terms of scheduling, scientists responded quickly to the newly detected explosion and logged data several nights in a row. It was one of 70 observatories that contributed to this research.

SOAR’s documentation was critical for understanding the evolution of the source, said Jay Strader, MSU astronomer and co-author of one of the papers confirming the discovery.

“SOAR got ‘lucky’ in the sense that the source was in the southern sky, where it could observe the collision,” he said. “But some of the best telescopes for identifying these sources in the future are also in the south, such as the Blanco 4-meter telescope at CTIO, and in the future LSST, which is on the same mountain as SOAR.”

This means SOAR is positioned prominently to perform follow-up work well into the next decade, Strader added.

MSU’s Arash Bahramian also contributed to the neutron collision discovery.

By: Layne Cameron

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