Villanova University Astrophysicist Part of First Detection of Gravitational Waves Produced from Colliding Neutron Stars

This is the first cosmic event viewed by gravitational waves and light

Villanova University Astrophysicist Part of First Detection of  Gravitational Waves Produced from Colliding Neutron Stars

VILLANOVA, Pa.—Villanova University Assistant Professor of Physics Amber Stuver, PhD, is part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team that has made the first detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars. The discovery was also made by the Europe-based Virgo detector and 70 other ground and space-based observatories. The results are published in the Physical Review Letters journal.

“We have detected a new, highly anticipated, source of gravitational waves,” said Stuver, who has been a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which consists of approximately 1,200 scientists from around the world, since 1999. “Our previous discoveries have come from black holes, so this is a very exciting event for astrophysicists and astronomers around the world. I’m eager to take this data and work with my students and colleagues to see what we can learn and apply to our next discovery.”

Neutron stars are approximately 12 miles in diameter and about one and a half times the mass of the sun. The stars are so dense that one teaspoon of a neutron star has a mass of about one billion tons. They are formed when stars explode in what’s known as a supernova. On August 17, LIGO detected neutron stars 130 million light-years from Earth moving in close proximity to one another – about 200 miles. As they began to move faster, the neutron stars created gravitational waves, which were observed by the LIGO observatories in Washington and Louisiana and the Virgo detector in Italy.

As the gravitational waves were created, the neutron stars grew closer to one another and eventually collided, creating an intense flash of gamma rays.  After the independent detection of gamma rays and gravitational waves, observatories around the world found other forms of light coming from this source.  These observations showed that after the neutron stars merged, a kilonova blew the leftover mass from the collision out into the universe. Observation of a kilonova shows how heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created and dispersed into the universe.

LIGO and gravitational waves are the focus of Stuver’s research that she has brought to Villanova.  In total, there have been five announced discoveries of gravitational waves, including the first detection in September 2015. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics were awarded to LIGO founders R. Weiss, B. Barish, and K. Thorne for their contributions to LIGO and the observation of gravitational waves.

LIGO is funded by the NSF, and operated by Caltech and MIT, which conceived of LIGO and led the Initial and Advanced LIGO projects. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by the NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,200 scientists and some 100 institutions from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian collaboration OzGrav. Additional partners are listed at http://ligo.org/partners.php    

The Virgo collaboration consists of more than 280 physicists and engineers belonging to 20 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the University of Valencia; and the European Gravitational Observatory, EGO, the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, funded by CNRS, INFN, and Nikhef.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Ranked among the nation’s top universities, Villanova supports its students’ intellectual growth and prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them. For more, visit www.villanova.edu.