When Stars Collide: CSUF Researchers Contribute to Space Discovery

CSU Fullerton researchers are key players in the groundbreaking observation of the first-ever gravitational wave signals emitted from the collision of two neutron stars.

Article ID: 683661

Released: 23-Oct-2017 5:00 PM EDT

Source Newsroom: California State University (CSU) Chancellor's Office

Newswise — The Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center at California State University, Fullerton is celebrating another first-of-its-kind, out-of-this-world discovery, this one occurring 130 million light-years away from Earth.

One year after being recognized for assisting astronomy researchers at Caltech's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the discovery of gravitational waves, CSU Fullerton is celebrating its contribution in the first-ever recorded signal of a neutron star collision. 

On August 17,  LIGO detectors observed a pair of orbiting neutron stars crashing into one another, something that had never previously been confirmed.

But what is a neutron star? Or a gravitational wave? And, perhaps most important, what does it all mean?  

Jocelyn Read, Ph.D., a CSUF assistant professor of physics who has spent the past decade studying these phenomena, explains: "Neutron stars are 'zombie stars;' they're formed after stars run out of fuel and die in a dramatic supernova explosion.

"Gravitational waves drive the stars together through millions of years until they crash together. As they collide, they can launch jets of gamma rays, throw off some of their matter, and forge the universe's heavy elements, like gold, in a radioactive debris cloud."

A Bonanza for Astrophysicists

As galactic discoveries go, this one opens a door to the unknown, but it also highlights the power of researchers from different backgrounds and institutions coming together from all over the world, says Dr. Read.

"This is an astrophysical bonanza with scientific implications about the nature and history of our universe that are just beginning to be understood," she enthuses, adding that "understanding this event tests the limits of our scientific models."

The analysis Read will conduct of the collision will draw together the fields of astronomy, optics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, relativity, magnetic fields, and more. "Everything comes together in this extreme scenario," she says. "We are going to put our understanding of the universe to the test in explaining everything observed with this event."  

Read recalls mostly feeling disbelief when the signal came through on August 17. "At first, I could barely believe that we'd finally found one of these events and that it was louder and clearer than I'd ever dared to hope one would be," she says. 

Student Research is Key  Read is a leader of the CSUF team that will interpret the analysis of this ground-breaking recording. The group includes Joshua Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics and director of the center; Geoffrey Lovelace, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics; undergraduate students Erick Leon and Isabella Molina; Marissa Walker, a postdoctoral research associate; Joseph Areeda, computation specialist; and Torrey Cullen, a CSUF alumnus and doctoral student at Louisiana State University.    The team will serve as co-authors of the post-neutron stars collision discovery paper.

Research related to this discovery will be conducted for years to comeRead stresses that student research is an integral part of groundbreaking discoveries like these, as they are the scientists of the future.  

"Our students are building skills in topics like computation and data science that are increasingly relevant across all industries and business in this technical age," she notes.

"Our hard work and the CSU's investment in our center and our students has paid off spectacularly and in a way that has caught a lot of attention. But this is just one example of the amazing research and creative activity that is going on across our campus every day. I am really happy to be a part of that." 

Learn more about the recent neutron star gravitational wave discovery and CSUF's Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center.

Gravitational wave: "Ripples" in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the universe.

Neutron star: An extremely dense star. Gravitational waves are produced by a single spinning massive object, such as neutron stars.

Source: Caltech Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory


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